"MCC is not using panamax vessels in intra-Asia and we probably never will, at least not on our own," Wickmann said. Elaborating, he said the requirements of the trade are frequency, direct services and flexibility, and panamaxes do not have any of these characteristics.
The traditional panamax in the 3,500 – 4,500 teu range has found itself very much unloved following the expansion of the Panama Canal to accommodate vessels of upto 13,000 teu but intra-Asia was seen as a possible home.
Prime among the considerations is that many ports in the market cannot even take these vessel sizes. But even for those that can and where the potential for reasonable port pairs exists such as Thailand to Japan, Northeast Asia to Singapore or Malaysia, there are challenges that make it tough to use these ships, Looten said.
In the case of the former turnaround time is not quick enough with the bigger vessels while for the latter, these is intense price pressure from the mainline carriers that also operate megacarriers on these routes and have lower slot costs than the regional players.
The exception would be Northeast Asia to Jakarta, and taking in Surabaya. If there were enough carriers to form an alliance specific to this route and match the volumes needed to be economically viable it might be possible, Wickmann said. He cautioned however that getting berthing windows remained a challenge. In addition, volumes on the northbound sector of the route are unlikely to be scaled up and as such with not fully laden ships on part of the voyage, the scale benefits of the panamaxes cannot be realised.
While this is not a situation that the Maersk Line intra-Asia unit is in, Wickmann said that some other operators who already own panamaxes may still give it a try since it might be cheaper for them than chartering three smaller ships. He however maintained that the flexibility and frequency that the market wants cannot be met with this class of vessel.
On any possible cascading of panamaxes Wickmann concluded: "MCC's conclusion is that it's not happening out of wish, it can only happen out of need."