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THE Container Transport Alliance Australia has called a rise in fees levied by shipping lines for the late return of containers an “insidious consequence” of continuing port congestion in Australia’s container ports.

The CTAA said shipping lines include container detention clauses in their terms and conditions of international shipment for the valid purpose of incentivising forwarders, importers and their landside logistics providers not to unduly hold on to containers and to return them in a timely manner so that they are available to the shipping line for their next use.

However, the reasonableness of these strict detention fee policies is questionable when delays in the logistics chain occur that are outside of the control of forwarders, importers and transport companies, the CTAA said.

A major reason for current delays is the congestion at container terminals caused by high peak volumes, COVID related labour shortages, terminal equipment malfunctions and lingering industrial relations disruptions.

CTAA Director Neil Chambers said in the current peak climate, transport operators are struggling to secure timely vehicle booking system (VBS) slots to move imports away from the terminals once the containers are landed and available.

“Instead of being able to get the imports as soon as they are grounded or on day one of availability, now it’s day two or even day three (or more), before the boxes are able to be picked up. That also includes using available night shift terminal VBS slot capacity and working weekends,” Mr Chambers said.

“These delays at the front end of the container logistics chain have negative consequences at the other end, including a rush to try to get containers unstuffed and returned empty to designated return facilities before container detention free time is breached.”

Mr Chambers said, some shipping lines have recognised that their contracted stevedores have contributed to the landside logistics delays and have waived or extended container detention free time.

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“Alas, not all shipping lines have recognised this concern and disputed container detention fee bills are on the rise,” he said.

“Many transport operators have clear terms and conditions requiring at least two business days’ notice from their import clients that containers are ready for empty return. However, some have now extended that notice period to three days due to the need to book return slot notifications with some empty container parks 24 to 48 hours in advance or to secure a suitable slot for a direct return of the empty (DRE) to an ocean terminal. This is another by-product of high container shipping volumes and finite empty container gate-in capacity.”

Mr Chambers said transport operators are also talking to their import customers about the things they can control and those things that are outside of their control, including congestion in the supply chain or delays that are not of their making.

“Transport operators take every endeavour to deliver on the supply chain needs of their customers. However, in the current climate or high peak demand and significant congestion, it is unrealistic to expect that very strict container detention free time policies of shipping lines will be able to be satisfied. This is particularly the case if the shipping lines themselves don’t recognise the fact that it is their own contractors – container terminals, and in some instances empty container parks – that are the cause of much of the delays,” he said.

“Freight forwarders and importers are being urged to seek early consideration of container detention free time extensions from shipping lines. This can be via direct discussion with shipping line branches in Australia if the importer is the freight-paying customer of the shipping line, or via the shipper in the port of origin if the terms of trade are such that they are the freight-paying customer of the shipping line.”

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