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A double dose of good news for Maersk Line today, after it reported third quarter profits of nearly half a billion dollars and also retained its place as the most reliable container shipping line.

First up, the numbers. Maersk was the latest in a series of lines to make a decent profit in the quarter as a result of rising freight rates, despite the fact that for a large part of the quarter, rates appeared to be under considerable pressure.

It really was a quite startling turnaround, and demonstrated the peculiar, gravity-defying nature of container shipping once more. In the third quarter of last year it had posted a $298 million loss carrying 4.2 million teu. This year it posted a $498 million profit carrying, er, 4.2 million teu.

Volumes declined 11% on African routes and 8% between Asia and Europe, with a shocking 15% decline on the headhaul westbound route, while the Americas’ volumes were up 7% and intra-Asia up 19%.

Rates were up, in some cases substantially so. Asia-Europe rates increased by 19% year-on-year, almost directly refuting the standard laws of supply and demand, although the global revenue per 40ft increased by 6% to reach $3,022, compared with $2,860 last year. That increase, combined with a 6% decrease in costs, proved to be crucial – the line made a $241 profit on each 40ft carried compared to a $124 loss last year.

And following the second quarter profit of $227 million, the horrendous first quarter loss of $600 million is nothing but a painful memory. Year-to-date, the line is $126 million in the black.

Given the diabolical trading conditions, one might suspect that such a turnaround has come at the expense of customer service, but container carrier reliability figures published today by Drewry Maritime Research show that Maersk has maintained its position as the number one carrier for on-time performance.

Its quarterly Carrier Performance Insight found that 90.5% of Maersk’s sailings arrived on time, a slight decline from the previous quarter, where the figure was 91.4%

In second place was Safmarine, although its ranking was achieved “almost entirely on the back of sharing so many of Maersk’s services”, said report author Simon Heaney, while Hanjin came third with 88.1% of on-time arrivals, down 1.5% from its second quarter performance.

Overall, the liner shipping industry had an on-time reliability of 73.5% in the quarter, compared to the record 75.7% set in the previous quarter. The survey looked at the performance of some 1,100 vessels and compared carriers’ advertised and scheduled ETAs with the actual ETAs provided at eight ports – Rotterdam, Hamburg, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Dubai, Long Beach, Virginia and Sydney – and classified those that arrived on the same day as expected as being on time.

Going back to the beginning of 2010, two broad trends have emerged from the research – firstly, the industry as a whole is getting better at serving its customers; but secondly there is both an growing distance between the best and the worst, and an increasingly concentrated group of carriers in the middle.

The last of these phenomena can be explained by the existence of larger alliances, since the study does not discriminate between the vessel operator and slot-charterer (although it does also run a separate vessel operator schedule reliability performance list).

In this way, even Mediterranean Shipping Company, long famed for its disregard for schedule integrity, managed to hit an unprecedented 66.1% in the quarter – reaching the giddy heights of 75% in September – because it is now cooperating with other carriers more than ever before.

In contrast, the worst performers were intra-Asian operators such as TS Lines, Wan Hair and Cheng Li, at around the 50% mark.

Then again, 50% was a benchmark for the liner shipping as a whole in mid-2006, as the graph below demonstrates.

Source: Drewry Maritime Research

Shippers might well have legitimate grounds to complain about the way slow steaming has lengthened supply chains and tied up working capital in inventory, but it also appears that the carriers’ response that reliability has improved – thus giving shippers better control over supply chain planning – is also true. Whether that improvement is caused by the wriggle room provided by slow steaming is uncertain, but there is certainly a correlation.

And carriers are increasingly talking about it, says Mr Heaney. “At the top of the table, this is more than just marketing puff – carriers have transcended the rhetoric and have made sure there is enough slack in their networks to improve reliability. With other lines, reliability is clearly lower down the list of priorities.”