Armada of big ships readies to hit the market as demand falters

In 2023, the world’s top eleven ocean carriers, which include nine members from three global alliances as well as ZIM and Wan Hai Lines, are set to add a whopping 89 large mainline container ships to their fleets, according to Alphaliner.

This development is poised to have a significant impact on the global shipping industry.

To provide some context, the term ‘big’ in this case refers to three categories of vessels: megamax (MGX) which can hold up to 24,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), neopanmax (NPX) units ranging from 13,000 to 15,000 TEU, and ‘other’ mainline ships with a capacity of 7,000 TEU or more (XXX).

This number includes no fewer than 31 megamax ships. MSC alone will account for almost half of these with 14 units due. Depending on market demand, some of these ships could be deferred to 2024.

“This year will thus see the arrival of the box ship delivery ‘wave’ that follows the ordering frenzy of 2020 and 2021. At least for the time being it looks as if all this extra tonnage will hit the liner trades at a time of faltering demand,” Alphaliner said.

2M Alliance

Among the 2M carriers, growth will be driven primarily by MSC, which is scheduled to receive a whopping 33 NPX and MGX ships this year. Presumably, MSC will try to channel much of its fleet growth into new standalone loops outside of the 2M as the carrier prepares for the end of the VSA with Maersk in late 2024.

MSC in February announced the imminent re-boot of its suspended Far East – Med service ‘Dragon’ and an armada of big newbuildings is ready to join the carrier’s network in Q1 and Q2. Compared to the ‘old Dragon’ loop, which was a joint 2M operation, the ‘new Dragon’ re-boot will likely be an MSC-only offer, Alphaliner said.

Maersk will hardly receive any big mainliners in 2023 and the carrier’s new methanol-powered ships of 16,200 teu are only due as of mid-2024. Attempting to create a unique selling proposition with a carbon-neutral transport offer, Maersk will likely not be inclined to bring these ‘special’ ships into 2M services, so both Maersk’s and MSC’s allegiance to the 2M seems lukewarm at best.

The OCEAN Alliance partners

OCEAN, the largest carrier alliance in terms of vessel capacity, has gone through a well-timed growth period with numerous newbuildings, primarily from CMA CGM and Evergreen.

This year, the alliance partners are expected to expand moderately with a handful of NPX and other mid-sized ships.

OCEAN’s mainline services will however see the phase-in of six MGX ships from OOCL (COSCO). The alliance will return to stronger growth in 2024, when all three partners are scheduled to receive 28 NPX ships as well as another seven MGX units for OOCL and Evergreen.

Among the big three alliances, OCEAN’s partners are the most evenly matched when it comes to newbuilding plans. All three member carriers take delivery of numerous big ships, especially of NPX vessels, through 2024 and 2025.

“The termination of 2M and the end of 2024 will see OCEAN cement its position as the biggest alliance in the market. That is unless the end of 2M will trigger a – so far unforeseen – seismic shift in the entire alliance landscape in a few years,” Alphaliner estimates.

Carriers of THE Alliance

Despite the much smaller overall size of its members, THE Alliance is actually the second-largest alliance in terms of operated capacity, trailing OCEAN by over a million TEU, but slightly ahead of 2M. In the short term, its growth will exclusively come from HapagLloyd and ONE.

Hapag-Lloyd is currently receiving a series of high reefer NPX vessels which the shipping line is expected to deploy primarily on non-alliance north-south routes.

Soon, however, the Hamburg-based line will take delivery of its new flagship, the LNG-powered BERLIN EXPRESS, the first of twelve MGX ships. With one exception, the vessels are all due this year and in 2024 and they will join THEA’s Far East – Europe network.

Growth will also come from ONE, which will receive five MGX ships. From 2023 to 2025, ONE will also take in another 15 NPX ships that will likely join THEA services.

HMM and Yang Ming have few ships coming in the near term, but the Korean Line HMM has recently replenished its pipeline with newbuiding orders in the 9,000 teu size.

In 2024, HMM will also receive twelve 13,600 teu NPX ships. These could however be high-reefer units for expansion in the non-THEA north-south trades.

Yang Ming has hardly any orders going, but the Taiwanese carrier is believed to be close to signing up for five 15,000 teu NPX ships for delivery in 2025 or 2026.

In addition to the big network carriers, X-Press and TS Lines will also receive vessels of ‘mainline’ size this year, likely earmarked for intra-Asia trades.

Forward fixtures of modern secondhand ships help fleet renewal

Some carriers will expand their fleets with modern second-hand tonnage that was strategically forward-fixed in 2022. This concerns tonnage in the 10,000 TEU and 14,000 TEU NPX sizes.

Hapag-Lloyd and MSC have been the most active in this sector. In early 2022, the German carrier Hapag-Lloyd already fixed nine 2013 and 2014-built 13,808 TEU vessels from NS Lemos, SFL and Schulte Group–related interests for five-year periods that only begin in late 2023, when the ships are released from their initial ten-year charters to Evergreen. Similarly, Hapag-Lloyd will receive five 10,010 TEU ‘SAVER’ class ships from Seaspan in mid-2024, all chartered for periods of eight years.

With these forward-fixtures, Hapag-Lloyd is kicking the decision for newbuilding orders down the road until the second half of the decade, when green fuel technologies may have matured further. MSC made a similar move when it fixed numerous 9,000 TEU ships from Costamare for five-year periods that only start in mid-2025.

Armada of megamax newbuildings ready to phase into the Asia – Europe trades

A literal armada of ultra-large vessels is set to join the global container ship fleet in the coming weeks and months, with numerous megamax-class newbuildings.

From mid-March to early April, MSC alone will phase no fewer than four 24,000 teu newbuildings into the Asia – Europe network of the 2M partnership. Further to this, OOCL and Hapag-Lloyd have also decided already to which Far East – North Europe loops the carriers will assign their upcoming megamax flagships.

Numerous megamax container vessels of 23,500 to 24,000 TEU are nearing completion at shipyard in the Far East, and some of them have already been delivered including MSC Tessa, MSC Irina, and OOCL Spain.

MSC’s megamax phase-in has seen the 24,116 TEU MSC TESSA join the ‘AE6 / Lion’ service at Ningbo, and 24,346 TEU MSC IRINA joined the Asia – Med ‘AE10 / Jade’ service on 21 March in Qingdao. The first two sister ships of the MSC TESSA are expected for delivery soon as well.

The 24,116 teu MSC CELESTINO MARESCA will join her sister in the fleet of the ‘AE6 / Lion’ loop on 28 March in Ningbo, while the MSC RAYA will start her maiden voyage on 9 April in Shanghai for the ‘AE55 / Griffin’ service, Alphaliner said.

However, as explained, filling these new giant ships could be a tough challenge for Maersk and MSC as both 2M partners are still blanking sailings due to weak bookings and a general slowdown in global cargo demand, which already prompted numerous voyage cancellations.

OOCL SPAIN is the first newbuilding for OOCL since the Hong Kong-based carrier was taken over by COSCO Shipping Holdings in 2018.

The ship left Shanghai on 18 March to join the Far East – North Europe ‘LL3’ loop on 21 March in Xiamen. This third loop of the OCEAN Alliance turns in twelve weeks, but, due to voyage cancellations, it currently deploys a fleet of only seven COSCO-operated 14,070 – 21,200 teu ships.

Big ships phase in, but cargo demand falters

The armada of new megamax ships will hit the liner market at a time of weakening demand on the main east-west corridors. This is illustrated by the fate of the newbuilding MAERSK CANYON, Alphaliner pointed out.

Korea’s DSME shipyard delivered this 15,413 TEU vessel in mid-January and the ship was initially scheduled to commence her maiden voyage in the 2M’s ‘AE1 / Shogun’ loop on 1 March. The ‘AE1 / Shogun’ had not offered any sailings from China in December, January or February and it is effectively suspended.

The vessel’s departure was originally intended to reboot the operation but the sailing was eventually blanked, with the ship’s maiden trip deferred until mid-May.

Similarly, the maiden voyage of the 15,264 TEU MSC SOFIA on the very same service was also re-scheduled. The ship was moved to phase into MSC’s standalone Far East – Indian Subcontinent – Middle East ‘New Falcon’ service.

Hapag-Lloyd recently confirmed that its BERLIN EXPRESS, the first of twelve LNG-powered megamaxes for the German carrier, will in April join one of THE Alliance’s Far East – North Europe loops which calls at the carrier’s home base of Hamburg. This rules out the ‘FE2’ which as from April will only serve Wilhelmshaven in Germany.

A deployment in the smaller ‘FE1’ and ‘FE5’ loops with a respective focus on Japan and South East Asia can also be excluded. Since THEA’s ‘FE4’ is fully staffed with 24,000 TEU ships of HMM, Hapag-Lloyd’s megamax newbuildings are expected to join the ‘FE3’, which is currently operated by a mix of 14,600 – 16,010 teu ships from HMM and Hapag-Lloyd, Alphaliner concluded.