Covid Déjà Vu: Freight Costs Surge While Capacity Shrinks

24 May 2024 – As sea freight costs soar and capacity dwindles, the trade and logistics market is becoming increasingly frustrated.

There is a sense of exasperation in the market because of the steep freight increases being passed while sea freight capacity has been reduced. Unfortunately, it’s starting to feel like we are in a similar position to when we were at the peak of Covid.

Rates are increasing on a weekly basis and carriers are deploying capacity to the higher yielding trades which is not good news for South Africa. As we did during the dark days of the pandemic, we have to ride out this wave and know that market conditions will improve again over time. For the time being, there will be a price to pay to get cargo loaded.

The impact of the following key factors needs to be continually assessed and considered:

  • Erratic schedules
  • Blank sailings
  • Sea freight capacity constraints
  • Freight surcharges (PSS/GRI’s)
  • Port equipment breakdowns
  • Strong airfreight demand

Sea freight update

The market is currently experiencing a turbulent time with an increase in the number of blank sailings, continuous operational constraints across South African ports and steep freight rate increases. We anticipate market conditions to remain challenging over the coming months.

The diversion of vessels from transiting through the Suez Canal, due to tensions in the Red Sea, continues to impact the market and additional capacity has been deployed from other trades onto the various service strings routing around the Cape of Good Hope.


Following on from April, carriers continued to implement blank sailings on the Far East to South Africa trade which has significantly reduced capacity availability. Some carriers have also reported large roll-over pools and have subsequently suspended accepting new bookings until further notice as they clear up backlogs.

There is a severe demand vs supply imbalance for both capacity and equipment on the Far East trade. Bookings need to be made three to four weeks in advance. One can still expect blank sailings to be implemented at short notice in June as vessels returning from South Africa continue to be badly delayed.

Capacity availability on the rest of the trades has been stable and we have not experienced the same disruptions as that of the Far East.

Month-on-month improvement in global schedule reliability

Sailing schedules:

It’s no secret that carriers are not able to meet their scheduled transit times. Anchorage delays outside South African ports have improved over the past few weeks, but unfortunately this is due to port omissions and a reduction in inbound capacity, and not because of improved performance by Transnet.

Equipment breakdowns remain a major issue for the ports and therefore negatively impact port operation. Vessel berthing delays remain on average between 10 to 16 days in Durban and between five to eight days at Coega and Cape Town ports.

Carriers will continue to omit port calls or re-route vessels at short notice should they foresee severe delays to their schedules. A majority of vessel sailings are running behind schedule into and from South Africa. Additional lead time still needs to be factored in until further notice.

Global schedule reliability has improved slightly, but remains well below acceptable levels. Schedule reliability improved month-on-month to 53.3% according to the latest Sea-Intelligence report.

Freight rates:

Carriers have implemented aggressive rate increases on the Far East trade and further increases can be expected. We are seeing rates increase on a weekly basis for both FCL and LCL. Carriers have also re-introduced priority booking surcharges in addition to peak season surcharges (PSS) and general rate increases (GRI’s).

They are giving preference to bookings made on the priority service at the higher freight levels. GRI’s of $1000/TEU have been implemented and average market rates have already breached $2500/TEU from the Far East.

Rate levels as high as $7500/40ft for priority bookings have already been reached. Fortunately, our rate levels on the Europe, India and USA trades remain stable with minimal rate fluctuations. Source: Investec.com