“Magic Boxes?”

See if you can figure this one out. The president of the Pacific Maritime Association already has, by the sound of things. At last week’s 7th Annual Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference sponsored by the Journal of Commerce, the president of the PMA was quoted as saying that “Our primary objective will be to improve productivity and reduce congestion at the terminals”.

Other objectives of the PMA, he said, would be to reduce emissions and enhance security, by making use of technological innovations.

Nothing was said by him or by anyone else about the “technological innovations” that would be available, but that was no surprise. People who should know better have been uttering this line ever since congestion reared its ugly head in our container-handling ports. The dream, of course, is that someone will show up with a magic box that solves all their problems. That kind of magic brought us the dot-com and the Y2K fiascos, you’ll recall, but so what … the third time is a charm … maybe.

The president’s remarks came in the form of an announcement that a shorter contract with the ILWU was being considered. The rationale had something to do with the conviction that West Coast terminals would, should, or could double their annual throughput from the current 5,000 TEU per acre to a preposterous 10,000 TEU per acre over the next five years.

“A longer contract may not be the answer to technology changes,” said the president. The container terminal technology is changing so rapidly … or so we’re told …that the PMA needs the shorter contract in order to negotiate technology changes more frequently.

Let’s see if we’ve got that right. We clearly remember that in the early 1980s there wasn’t a container in sight in San Pedro Bay. Back then we couldn’t even spell c-o-n-g-e-s-t-i-o-n. It wasn’t until the early nineties that congestion was even a possibility. But as container volumes steadily increased, so did congestion. Logically then, an increasing number of containers brings increasing congestion. Would you agree with that statement?

Now, however, we hear that an annual productivity increase from 5,000 TEU per acre to 10,000 TEU per acre is a primary objective of the PMA. Good for them. Hard work never hurt anyone. But in the same breath we hear that congestion will be reduced while this increase in volume is taking place.

How? How can that be possible? As if normal terminal clutter isn’t enough, measures to reduce emissions and enhance security are now being forcibly introduced, and with these new requirements and restrictions in place, how can anyone expect to see any worthwhile improvements in terminal operations? What kind of prestidigitation are authorities dreaming about that will make it possible to achieve the objectives mentioned above?

A day of reckoning is on the horizon.