As vessel size grows and shipping lines focus more on cost reduction, terminal operators will come under greater pressure to make better use of their existing resources, APM Terminals' head of global operations Jack Michael Craig told JOC's Port Performance North America Conference in Newark, New Jersey.
"What this means for terminal operators is there will be bigger winners and losers as it comes to volume," Mr Craig said, of the new era of increasing large ships making fewer stops. "The impact of winning and losing that business is now greater than it was in the past."
Mr Craig cited a study by analyst Drewry that found North American ports stored a far smaller volume of TEU on a hectare than any other continent in the world, and handled fewer TEU per gantry crane. North America did worse than all but Europe on the number of TEU handled per metre of berth each year, reported IHS Media.
"Nowhere else in the world are we chewing up acres, or have we traditionally chewed up acres of land, storing chassis," Mr Craig said. "Nowhere else in the world do we queue for customs and trouble tickets inside our (terminal) gates."
Ports also make inefficient use of their equipment, he said. Of the 170 cranes at the port of Long Beach, for example, only half are used even during peak periods - a use intensity that "doesn't make a lot of sense from a shareholder's perspective," he said.
Likewise, North American ports fail to efficiently get ships on and off the terminal in a timely fashion, he said.
"As an operator, how many times do we see a ship come alongside and it sits idle for an hour and a half," he said. "How many times does a ship finish and it's waiting for 45 minutes or 50 minutes for either the pilots to get on board, or tugs to come alongside.
"Around the rest of the world we just don't see it that often," Mr Craig said. "There are places around the world where routinely, every single day, every single ship from last line to first lift is less than 30 minutes, like clockwork. We just don't do that here, yet."
He said terminal operators could consider retooling existing equipment to cut costs, such as retrofitting cranes to add height and depth so that they can accommodate bigger ships. They also need to make greater use of technology that will provide visibility of containers along the supply chain, and provide constant information to the terminal and customers about their progress.