Why Was Your Shipment Delayed?

Eli DolganskyGeneral20 Comments

Trucks waiting to get into port.

Simply put, transit time is the amount of time it takes to travel a given distance. When a business needs to ship products, transit time plays a crucial role in planning. Businesses typically want their goods to spend as little time as possible in transit. However, slowdowns and delays are inevitable. You may have wondered in the past, “Why was my shipment delayed?”

While most delays can be prevented, others are unavoidable. It’s important to work with a skilled freight forwarder to mitigate the chances of experiencing these delays:

Delays at Transshipment Ports

A transshipment occurs when containers or goods are sent to an intermediate terminal before reaching their final destination. Once a ship arrives at its transshipment port, containers are unloaded from the original vessel and reloaded onto another ship. Delays occur when a vessel movement is missed, i.e., the container does not show up on time and the next ship leaves without it.

This can be a common occurrence when dealing with carriers and is usually caused by a delay at origin, which in turn causes a delay to the transshipment hub, and ultimately results in a shipment missing a vessel movement. A shipment can be delayed at the origin for a number of reasons, including weather, missing proper documentation, or not meeting certain requirements such as the SOLAS Container Weight Verification Requirement.

Transshipment delays are most common in the Caribbean due in part to the fact that most transshipments take place in what is known as the “Caribbean transshipment triangle”, an area that has points at Freeport, Colon, and Port of Spain. The area’s proximity to the Panama Canal (creates a funnel effect) coupled with the fact that ports in this region also have lower land and labor costs makes it a preferred location for conducting transshipments.

A skilled freight forwarder has relationships with carriers and knows which are the most reliable. For example, they know which carriers have the highest “on time” performance. This will help prevent delays and avoid missed vessel movements.

Rolled Shipments

Rolled shipments occur when carriers move or “roll” shipments to a later date. This can occur when both carrier capacity decreases and customer demand increases, causing the spot market to surge which in turn allows carriers to contract higher rates. Rolling can also occur when you don’t have proper documentation for your shipment.

A freight forwarder can ensure that all documentation is correct and that the documentation is delivered on time. They also have strong relationships with carriers which means that you’ll be able to secure more capacity versus working directly with a carrier you’re not familiar with.

Number of Port Stops Between Origin and Destination

The number of port stops that occur between the origin and destination ports can cause delays as well. A larger number of stops increases opportunities for delays between ports. Congestion at the ports due to slow loading/unloading, missing paperwork, or various other factors can increase delays. It’s possible to forecast delays at some ports but others are unavoidable.

Having a skilled freight forwarder helps you avoid making costly mistakes when it comes to planning your shipments. A freight forwarder will have a solid understanding of which ports typically have delays and can help you reroute your shipment if needed.

Service Frequency

Service frequency can also affect your overall transit time. Smaller unit capacities allow more frequent services and help meet shippers’ demand for shorter transit times. Larger units allow operators to benefit from economies of scale in relation to vessel size.

It can be difficult to gain a good grasp on the vast number of carrier schedules that are out there. A freight forwarder is familiar with carriers and vessel schedules and can help you choose the correct carrier for your individual needs.

Vessel Sharing

Vessel Sharing, or a Vessel Sharing Agreement (VSA), occurs when two or more carriers (who belong to the same shipping consortium) partner together to offer linear service on a specific route using a certain number of vessels.  VSA’s allow the parties involved to achieve significant fuel consumption reductions and enhance service to customers by giving more options and increasing capacity.

The most recent, notable VSA agreement occurred on July 10, 2014, when MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A. entered into a 10-year vessel sharing agreement with Maersk Line on Transpacific, Transatlantic, and Asia-Europe trades. One week a load is shipped on a Maersk ship, but the next it could be used for MSC service. There’s usually a variance of 7 days, meaning that VSA partners will switch ships on a certain route once per week.

As noted earlier, VSA agreements are meant to reduce fuel costs and provide better service to customers. However, sometimes this can cause delays. Two different carriers may use the same ship but they don’t always use the same routing. Even though the ship is the same, carriers may use different routes which could lead to shipping delays. If you’re not aware that the carrier you have selected is part of a VSA agreement, you can unknowingly have your shipment delayed.

A skilled freight forwarder is aware of all vessel sharing agreements that may affect your shipment and can help you plan accordingly.

External Elements

Some delays are completely out of you, your carrier, or your freight forwarder’s control and simply can’t be prevented. These could be forces of nature, mechanical issues, human error, or political issues:

  • Weather
  • Collisions
  • Vessel malfunctions
  • Congestion
  • War
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Fire
  • Natural Disasters
  • Large scale events (e.g. holidays)

Although some problems can’t be avoided, a skilled freight forwarder can help you mitigate or even prevent some issues from affecting your shipment. It’s best to enlist the help of a professional who knows the ins-and-outs of your trade route and can help you plan accordingly.

Ports Not Adequately Prepared For Larger Post-Panamax Vessels

One constant in maritime shipping is that ships continue to get bigger:

  • Between 1975 and 1995, ship size doubled
  • The following decade, ship size nearly doubled yet again
  • Finally, between 2005 and 2015, ship size doubled again

Larger ships have allowed for carriers to increase the number of containers that they can carry and cut costs. However, some ports are not adequately prepared for these larger, Post-Panamax vessels. Due to an increased number of containers, larger ships will require more container cranes per vessel. These ships will also require more yard equipment and a larger stacking area to be present. Not all ports are equipped to handle such large ships.

A skilled freight forwarder will be familiar with typical port load and unload times. They are better able to forecast which ports are slower and can help you plan accordingly so that your cargo is not stuck at an ill-equipped port.

Inspections and Holds

About 24 million containers arrive at U.S. borders and ports each year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are tasked with the job of making sure that these shipments are safe to enter the country. Sometimes, your shipment may be delayed by customs if it is seized or stopped. There are a number of reasons as to why your shipment is stopped at customs:

  • Not having government approval
  • Intellectual property rights violations
  • Car trouble (motor vehicles not meeting the importing nation’s standards)
  • Fraudulent identification

CBP stops certain shipments to examine them. These exams can be random and occur at any location or time while the U.S. is still in control of the imported cargo. Some exams are shorter than others. For example, customs X-Ray exams are shorter than more detailed, cumbersome exams like FDA or fish and wildlife exams.

Document Review This involves CBP comparing the commercial documents of shipments entering the country with details on the carrier’s manifest. If they believe any documentation is fraudulent, they will look into the matter and may need further examination. 

VACIS (Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System) This type inspection requires an X-ray exam of trailers or shipping containers. This usually occurs at a land border crossing location or at an ocean carrier’s terminal. An X-ray exam does not require containers to be opened or the seals to be broken.

Unloading and physically inspecting of all or part of a shipment (CET / AQI / MET / USDA) During a physical exam, an examination team will physically unload a container, inspect the contents, and reload the container. This is a more detailed examination than both a document review or VACIS exam. The following exam teams may conduct the exam:

  • Contraband Enforcement Team (CET) – Drugs, narcotics, or weapons
  • Agriculture Quarantine Inspections (AQI) – Agriculture examination
  • Merchandise Examination Team (MET) Merchandise examination
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Pest inspection

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) During an FDA exam, samples of imported products are collected and tested in a laboratory.   

Dealing with customs on your own can be very frustrating. No one wants their goods detained. Unfortunately, if your goods are seized, it can take over two months to get a decision back on your cargo. An experienced freight forwarder will take all of the necessary steps to ensure that you meet all customs requirements and get your goods to their final destination without any holds or seizures (unless your shipment is chosen at random). If you are randomly selected, a freight forwarder can walk you through the process every step of the way.

Congestion and Labor Issues at Ports

Sometimes there are too many containers at a port, which causes congestion. This can be due to resource constraints or other factors such as strikes or labor issues. For example, the 2014 – 2015 contract negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) resulted in strikes that have held up shipments for weeks at a time.

These types of issues are tough to deal with, but a skilled freight forwarder can help you find ways around these problems. This is where the experience and expertise of a partner company can add a lot of value to your shipping operations and business.

There are a number of different issues that can arise during your shipment which affect the overall transit time. If you’re not experienced, it can be difficult to account for everything. To decrease your transit time delays, it’s best to work with an experienced freight forwarder who can help you plan your shipment and walk you through the process every step of the way.

Eli Dolgansky
Eli is a member of the Business Development team here at LILLY + Associates with almost 10 years in the logistics industry. Fluent in Hebrew, Russian & English, Eli handles numerous international and domestic clients helping them find the best shipping solutions worldwide while providing top level customer service.

20 Comments on “Why Was Your Shipment Delayed?”

  1. Rachel Kim

    Thank you for a great article. I had a question. I am an importer from California and we import products from China. We notice shipments are delayed due to vessel rollovers. You’ve mentioned in your article the causes of vessel rollovers. My question is…Isn’t the steamship line supposed to “notify” us if there is delay due to vessel rollovers? (or for any other reasons)
    Also, if your booking gets rolled over due to missing document cutoff or vessel cutoff, is that also considered rollover?

    1. LILLY + Associates

      Hi Rachel – a rollover is when a container misses its intended schedule for any reason. Most steamship lines should send out notifications of rollings, but not all do. That is why it is best to trace your cargo!

  2. Dilip

    Is ther any resposibility for shipping company for delay in shipment due to tonnage problem and container locked behind

    1. LILLY + Associates

      Hi Dilip – unfortunately ETD and ETA are only estimates. The steamship line has no liability when these issues arise.

  3. Deanna

    We are using a freight forwarder to send our vehicle and personal items from the US to Europe. They have been holding everything at US warehouse for over a month by now while constantly telling us that they are “loading the container this week”. What actions can we take if they keep delaying the shipment of our belongings?

    1. LILLY + Associates

      Hello Deanna! We would recommend you to ask your forwarder for the info of the booking with the carrier. With this, you will be able to see in more detail the departure and arrival dates of the vessel that will be transporting your cargo. Generally a container is loaded with 7 to 3 days of anticipation regarding the estimate departure date. You can also contact the forwarder and ask them for the cause of the delay, remember that delays can happen for a large number of reasons that may be out of their control both forwarders and carriers. We hope you find this answer helpful!

  4. Alice

    I have a question, I recently had a sea shipment due in and it’s been delayed by a week because it’s been ‘left on the boat’ due to not having enough time to offload everything. Does this happen often and/or is it an honest mistake or is it a sign of using the services of a bad company?

    1. LILLY + Associates

      Hello Alice – Can you specify in which port of arrival this happened? this would actually depend on the port of arrival. Without knowing this, we are unable to determine what the actual cause may be. Thank you for reading us!

  5. Scott

    Good article. I am a small new business and have my 3rd container coming into my warehouse. My container from India has been stuck at the port in New York City for 4 weeks. This particular shipment the manufacturer in India was handling all costs of the shipment. So it is their freight forwarders.
    My business is in so much stress from this delay and there appears to be no end in sight. We email the freight forwarder each day and each day they come back and say no change no progress.
    It is waiting to come to cleveland and clear customs here.

    Any suggestions? My business is at a stand still and I feel like there is nothing that can be done.


    1. LILLY + Associates

      Hello Scott – Without further knowledge of why the container is stuck, it’s difficult to provide information, can you provide us with more information? thank you

  6. Ellis Willson

    The blog is very nice information and looking interesting article.
    Thank you for share us

  7. Busy

    Hello. What actions can I take against freight forward about my container coming from Uk to Africa.. t be delayed for 6 weeks when it should only take 21 days to get to my warehouse and my business is on stand for now..

    1. Busy

      If it’s was me holding there container at the port..they will charge me $50 per day.. I now want to charge them $50 per day for delaying my business

    2. LILLY + Associates

      Hello Busy – Unfortunately transit time and eta are just that an estimate – there are two many factors that occur when shipping to provide an exact arrival date. You can try to push them for a discount but at the end of the day the transit is out of their control as well so most likely they will not give you one. However, they should be able to advise what caused the delay and where – for example, weather, delay in transshipment, etc…

  8. D.Smith

    I have a order being shipped from china that is now being delayed due to the corona virus. It is an air diffuser. Should I be concerned about receiving this item from China. I’m concerned because of the fact that the diffuser despenses mist from it into the air in my home. Can you give me input on this?

    1. LILLY + Associates

      Hello! The Coronavirus has a limited lifespan before it can reach (infect) its next host. Transit times from China to the US (by sea) typically take about 40 days, so in the hypothetic scenario that your cargo does carry traces of the virus, it would simply die somewhere along the road. Hope this helps to clarify your doubts.

  9. Faster Freight


    you have shared very valuable information and knowledge that people should recognize. We are greatly amazed with the quality of the content which you have written down regarding shipment delayed. Your article has all the necessary details on the given topic.
    Thank you for sharing this post. We would love to see more updates from you.

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