Abandon Ship

Crisis and Consolidation in Global Shipping

A container ship from Hanjin Shipping Co., stranded outside the port of Long Beach, California, September 2016. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Until 1978, dozens of airlines flew the U.S. skies. Then, with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act, competition increased and profits became scarce. Decades of consolidation followed, as Allegheny, Eastern, Frontier, Ozark, Pan Am, and many other venerable names were merged out of existence or went bust. When the turbulence finally subsided, four giant carriers—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—controlled 70 percent of U.S. domestic passenger traffic and, through agreements with foreign carriers to share services, dominated international routes as well. Such measures have enabled the airline industry to rake in profits as never before.

Something similar is now going on in the world of container shipping. Excess capacity and slow-growing demand are forcing down the price of shipping, driving companies deeply into the red and bringing a wave of bankruptcies, mergers, and joint ventures. The August bankruptcy of South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping, the world’s seventh-largest container carrier, and the announcement, in September, of the restructuring of A.P. Moeller-Maersk, by far the world’s largest, are signs of a consolidation process that still has far to go. And although the industry is likely to remain troubled in the short term, in the long term, today’s troubles will lead to less competition among those carriers adept enough to survive. That in turn will mean higher rates for shippers, increasing the cost of moving goods around the world.


Modern container shipping dates back to 1956, when U.S. trucking magnate Malcom McLean refitted an aged tanker ship, renamed the Ideal X, to carry 58 truck trailers (minus their wheels) between the ports of Newark and Houston. Transatlantic service began in 1966, after the International Organization for Standardization agreed to standardize sizes and lifting mechanisms so that any crane in any port could handle any container. By the early 1970s, ships designed to carry nothing but containers were sailing all the world’s major trade routes, replacing costly service and unpredictable delivery times with cheap, reliable freight

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