With trans-Pacific cargo now taking over three months for ocean transit to the US, importers need to plan appropriately in order to secure summer import shipments in time. According to multiple data sources, average transit times have risen to double pre-COVID levels — and they’re still increasing.
The first trans-pacific shipping duration data comes from Flexport’s weekly Ocean Timeliness Indicator (OTI). The OTI uses data from Flexport’s freight forwarding customers back to March 2019, measuring the time from the cargo-ready date at the exporters’ gate to the date when products leave the destination port (i.e., the landside transport time from the factory to the port in Asia, the Asian port wait, the ocean journey, and the North American port wait). The OTI is an average for loads from all Asian countries to all North American ports on any of the three coasts.
Flexport’s Asia-U.S. OTI reached an all-time high of 114 days last week. That’s 41 days or 57% higher than at the same time last year, and 63 days or 125% higher than at the same time in 2020, pre-COVID.
A shipment time is not included in the average until the import cargo leaves the U.S. port, meaning the indicator is retrospective. Goods included in the average in the first week of January might have left an Asian factory in early October, at a time when the queue of waiting ships off Los Angeles/Long Beach was around 40% smaller than it is now.
Phil Levy, chief economist of Flexport, explained the value of the OTI in an interview with American Shipper. “It does speak in terms of days, and in that sense it’s supposed to give a general idea of the magnitude shippers have to deal with. But it’s not a precise, forward-looking estimate of how long it will take you to get from your factory in Vietnam to Vancouver, for example.
“This is intended as a straightforward and transparent measure of how severe the crisis is,” he said. “You see a lot of things that jump around and other fleeting measures. You might say, ‘Hey, I got a great spot rate out of Yantian so I guess the crisis is over’ or ‘There was stuff on the shelves when I went shopping yesterday so I think we must be OK.’ But the OTI is something that is fairly consistent, you can see it over time, and you can see the degree of variability over time. You can see that these are dramatically longer times than we’ve had before — and they haven’t backed off yet.
“Let’s suppose the supply chain fairy waved a wand and solved all of these problems and we went right back to the old shipping times of the pre-COVID era again. What would the ‘all clear’ look like? You wouldn’t see an immediate drop because it would take awhile for things to sort out [due to the OTI’s retrospective nature]. But you should start to see this trending down as each stage [Asia factory to ships/ocean/U.S. port] moves faster. And we haven’t seen that yet. If this resolves, you should see something very different here.”
Another measure of trans-Pacific shipping duration is produced by Freightos. It uses data since October 2019 from bookings on its Freightos.com marketplace, including both full container load (FCL) and less than container load (LCL) business.
The average monthly transit time is measured from China to U.S. ports, with the majority going to the West Coast ports. The delivery times are measured on an end-to-end basis, generally warehouse to warehouse.
Freightos calculated that it took an average of 80 days in December for trans-Pacific cargo, with FCL at 72 days and LCL at 82 days. The average transit time is 51% or 27 days higher than in December 2020 and 86% or 37 days longer than in December 2019, pre-COVID.