Container ships accommodate an extremely broad range of different cargoes; with this range come different requirements for stowage. Most of these requirements are specified at time of booking by the exporter. The shipping line would then record the booking, making note of the requirements and releasing appropriate equipment for the cargo.
So, from looking at the above – it all seems quite easy, doesn’t it ? The consignor has a particular shipment to send , and tells the container line the weight and size of the shipment and also any special requirements for carriage.
Realistically, however the person placing the booking is rarely the same person packing and transporting the cargo. These tasks are often split over different offices and even different companies. A common scenario is the shipper creating an export booking with the shipping line, and then arranging for a transport company to collect, pack and deliver the container to the wharf.
After the container has been packed and is ready to be loaded on the vessel, the terminal ( who will receive and load the container ) must be given both prior notice and details of the nature of the cargo. This notice is known by different terms in different ports ( in Australia for example, it is called a Pre Receival Advice, abbreviated to simply PRA ) , but usually takes the form of an EDI message being sent to the terminal detailing the :
- Booking number
- Container number
- Container size
- Temperature setpoint ( for chilled cargo )
- Cargo type; including dangerous or out of gauge details if applicable
- Container weight ( net, tare and gross )
- Time of intended delivery
Pre-advising the terminal is an excellent concept ( and in most countries a legal requirement ), however again the person packing the container and the person sending the pre-advice are not always the same. This can and does cause problems for terminal staff receiving the cargo
For example, during the loading of vehicles and / or mining equipment , there might be a part of the vehicle now protruding,meaning the cargo will now not fit within the confines of a standard shipping container and is hence classified as Out of Gauge. A special crane might be needed to offload and then load the container onboard the vessel.
Or what if, during loading an FAK ( Freight of All Kinds ) container, someone decided to add ten or twenty cartons of party poppers. The consignee may have requested these due to some extra container space and a confirmed buyer at origin. The container would now be classified as a Class 1 ( Explosives ) and would likely have a much shorter receival window at the wharf ( loaded last on, first off ).
Due to various reasons, these changes may not have made its way back to the person who preadvised the terminal ,or made the original booking with the shipping line.
These two examples would require different last minute adjustments by the terminal in order to accommodate the cargo correctly, as noted the former case would probably require special lifting equipment; and the latter case would need suitably trained personnel to safely receive, transport and load the explosives. These last minute changes incur a significant cost if the terminal has to call in special labour. The charge is passed on to shipping lines, who will usually ( but not always ) absorb the cost.
What effect can these misdeclarations have on the shipping lines, the operators of the vessel ?
Well, in the case of OOG cargo – the cargo “kills” the slots either above or around it ( parts of the cargo protrude into the next slot, meaning that that slot cannot be used ) . So if the crew weren’t aware of this prior to the cargo being presented for loading, it would mean that something could get left behind due to there not being enough space . The crew would not normally be aware of the commercial yield of each container, so would not necessarily choose to carry the most profitable container ( the OOG container could be carrying scrap metal being carried at a bargain rate, while the container left behind could be carrying highly profitable tobacco).
In the case of the party poppers, the crew would need to ensure that the container was not near anything potentially dangerous, such as a container with flammable liquids packed inside , or reefer containers ( as powered containers can malfunction and provide an ignition source due to sparking ). Again containers could be left behind due to last minute replanning of the vessel in order to comply with IMDG stowage and segregations.
The problems with last minute replanning are myriad; think of playing Jenga with a friend who pulls out a huge block from nowhere and tries to force it in. It’s just not possible without causing problems. Problems include lost productivity, port fines, customer dissatisfaction and increased bunker ( fuel ) costs to regain vessel proforma.
So, the logical next step becomes clear : in order to minimise replanning of the vessel and extra handling costs from the terminal, there needs to be a reconciliation between the shipping line booking and the pre-advice to the terminal.
Many of the larger transhipment hubs around the world use a validation tool where the pre-advice to the terminal will only be processed if the information matches that of the shipping booking. The shipping line provides a booking list to the terminal and all pre-advices must match this. If the pre-advice does not match, it is not accepted by the terminal , and the container would not be physically accepted at the terminal gate. The transport company calls the exporter, the exporter contacts the shipping line and checks their records against the shipping lines. Any necessary changes to the booking can be made. If the change involves new special cargo details ( i.e., the cargo is now considered out of gauge or DG and needs special stowage ) and there is not enough time to replan the ship, the container will be rolled over to the next sailing.
The stowage planning deadline usually falls on or slightly earlier than the general cargo cut-off . So if the validation tool picks up the error in time ( i.e., the shipper submits their pre advice as early as possible) – the shipper can correct the booking, there is time to replan the vessel to accommodate their cargo and everyone is happy!