How time and money is wasted in the congested sea and airspace


Once again, my recent trip from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore reminded me why congestion is a major enemy in the business of transporting goods and people, whether by air, sea or land. Let me use aviation as an example to illustrate the extent of this problem and its possible solutions.

“Sorry for the delay. We are waiting for clearance from air traffic control.” It’s quite common to hear an announcement like this on the KUL-SIN segment. This would often turn a fuss-free 45-minute ‘flying bus’ ride into a 90-minute ordeal.

Air traffic solution at the expense of passengers and airlines

This experience is actually the implementation of Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM), the air traffic control’s answer to congestion. Planes take off on time but end up flying holding patterns above the destination airport and burning expensive fuel. Air traffic controllers save costs by holding the planes with their doors closed at the departure airport, and only clear planes for taxiing and take-off when there’s no risk of landing delays.

ATFM is in fact optimizing time blocks called slots, short periods of time when take-offs and landings take place. The plane standing at the gate tells air traffic control it’s ‘ready’ and the doors remain closed, so the pushback and taxiing do not consume more than the allocated time slot. If a slot is missed (or if it is already certain in advance that it will be missed), the plane will be assigned a new slot, which might not be available until sometime later, often to the frustration of the passengers who are not privy to the conversations between the pilots and the control tower.

A clash of planning capabilities in shipping

Now let’s switch to the shipping industry and the places where congestion occurs the most – in ports and canals. My belief, most likely to the contrary of the opinions of port and canal operators, is that the congestion problem is of their own making. While carriers are trying to be dynamic in vessel assignments to rotations, the methods used by the infrastructure operators to accommodate those vessels are still quite old-fashioned. There is too much reliance on empirical experience embedded into simplistic heuristic technique of finding fast solutions at the cost of precision.

Complexities in achieving planning precision

Precision in planning is not given the attention it deserves. Take the example of the crossing of Panama Canal. Planners must take into account hundreds of attributes describing the vessel and her load characteristics, the ever-changing navigational restrictions, tugboat capabilities, and canal and locks configurations, among many others.

To understand the need for high precision, consider the fact that the clearance between the vessel and lock walls can be as tight as a few meters. For certain decisions, each vessel could be assessed in fractions of meters, e.g. protrusions beyond the ship’s side 16.85 meters or less above the waterline or extensions beyond the hull higher than 16.85 meters from the waterline.

Mind-boggling calculations are not limited to commercial canals. Any port with constrained drafts and affected by tides must similarly calculate the total draft required by the vessel before it enters, when it berths and the moment it exits, so that manoeuvers in the access channels and inside the basins can be performed safely without damaging equipment or causing serious injury to the dockworkers.

Let’s add some fog or unexpected water level surge, and suddenly the whole plan and semi-precise schedule goes out the window. Miscalculations in any aspect require difficult and time-consuming reworking of the plans and schedules, the key reason why small errors quickly turn into congestion-creating problems.

People and asset allocation

The other source of congestion is due to pilots and tugboats. Just like airline pilots, not all marine pilots are certified to handle all types of vessels. The pilot’s skills and experience can mean the difference between ‘on time, without damage’ and a horrendous delay. The pilot(s) and tugboats have to be scheduled for the vessel’s arrival and departure, which are never 100% certain, as any harbor master can attest to. I have yet to see a port that, without fail, makes no errors in scheduling pilots and tugboats to do the job.

How can we fight congestion?

Can the maritime industry take a page out of the aviation industry and make it better? Can we safely design sophisticated marine traffic management and automated decision systems that link congestion-fighting data of carriers and port operators to one decision optimization platform?

Digitization of information is already here. We don’t use the Morse code or fax to inform ports and canals operators of vessel location, type and nature of the load, awkward protrusions from the vessels and behavior of the vessels inside tight spaces. We have hundreds of monitoring and reporting devices to read the information in real time and make correct decisions in the most appropriate amount of time. We have better heuristic techniques and planning and scheduling optimization IT technology to make decisions fast and with much higher precision than even a few years ago.

The cost of modernization is not prohibitively high. Simply speaking, there are hardly any barriers to improve. What’s needed is a collaborative approach to decision-making that uses data offered freely operators and carriers for each to make decisions that benefit all.

Not doing anything is not an option, as eventually traffic will increase. Many ports and canals will have no desire for new extensions eating into their precious capital. Better decision-making, aided by the IT solutions available today, will remain the key tool in fighting congestion in marine operations.

This post was previously published on LinkedIn.