Weather, influx of larger ships behind recent Panama Canal delays

Nearly a month after a queue of ships began to mount on either side of the Panama Canal, canal authorities say they are now taking steps to expedite the traffic, decrease transit times and reduce the current backlog of vessels.

Despite claims to the otherwise, the Panama Canal Authority said the recent delays were largely the result of an influx of larger-than-average vessels, unseasonably high traffic to the U.S. West Coast and weather conditions related to the El Nino drought.

The canal authority announced Tuesday it had postponed all non-critical maintenance work at canal locks, modified its booking system, canceled draft restrictions and assigned additional crews to operate tugs, locomotives and locks.

To further expedite traffic, the canal on Thursday plans to temporarily suspend booking slots for regular vessels available in the third period, for vessels less than 300 feet in length and for just-in-time slots for regulars.

Carriers have told shippers that congestion continues to slow traffic transiting the waterway and some vessels are still facing up to 10-day delays, far more than the average transit times of 24 to 30 hours.

There were eight container ships transiting the canal Tuesday and 23 others awaiting transit — 18 on the Pacific side and 5 on the Atlantic, according to data from AIS Live, a sister product of within IHS. It’s fewer than recorded last week, but still higher than average for the waterway.

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