Everything according to the sailing schedule – despite wind, weather or unforeseen events

Unpredictable external factors, such as the prolonged winter weather conditions and the rapid spread of Covid-19, are currently posing special challenges to our sailing schedules. In what follows, experts from the Regional Coordination Committee (RCC) Europe speak about eventful experiences they have had in the last three months and review how they have managed – despite difficult circumstances – to ensure that whenever possible our vessels can reach their ports of call on time.

On this winter morning, a few isolated rays of sunshine are making it through the windows of the open-plan office on the third floor of Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters building on Hamburg’s Ballindamm. Gathered around screen monitors, the five members of the RCC Europe team are tracking the present positions of several hundred ships in a total of 35 services, which are currently sailing on our routes from all parts of the world to Europe. “We get an overview of the current situation every morning,” says Ann-Kathrin Lichy. “This allows us to know exactly where our ships are at that moment and, above all, whether they are on schedule.”

From right to left: Ann-Kathrin Lichy, Ina Nissler, Marten Jasper, Ulf-Erik Warner and Niels Benecke

As the guardians of the sailing schedules, the RCC staff works with our stowage planners and colleagues in port offices across Europe to ensure that our ships are on time whenever possible. To do so, they have to anticipate possible bottlenecks and risks of delays as early as possible – and take measures to counteract them in good time. “We work around the clock, including on weekends,” says Marten Jasper. But he says it doesn’t bother him that he has to work when his other colleagues are off, adding: “Every day is full of activity, so time flies.”

By planning strategically, they can often minimise delays that are known about long beforehand, such as those caused by local holidays. But not everything can be planned in advance. “Weather is actually the thing that gets in our way most often,” says Ina Nissler. “Due to adverse weather and storms, the winter months are particularly unpredictable.”    

Unexpected technical problems on a ship or crane breakdowns in terminals can also cost valuable time. And it isn’t uncommon to encounter several exceptional situations at the same time, triggering domino effects along the entire transport chain. Whenever that happens, our RCC team has to think about the most effective way to make up for any time delays while also taking customer needs into account.

To reach the best-possible decision, our colleagues have to factor in local circumstances as well as the capacity and speed limitations of the vessel in question. What’s more, the special requirements of the cargo also play an important role in their decision-making. For example, if temperature-sensitive fruit and vegetables are on board in reefer containers, this cargo is particularly time-critical and might have priority under these circumstances.  

The members of the RCC team rely on intense interaction with internal and external stakeholders as well as on their expert opinions. Teamwork is essential. “We always take the final decision in close coordination with other departments, external partners and the local terminals – usually by email or telephone,” explains Ulf-Erik Warner. To this end, the RCC stays in close internal contact with Trade Management and the global Network & Cooperations department. In addition, there is always tight coordination with the partner shipping companies on the particular service. The newly established Voyage Control department started to monitor the largest services also on a round-voyage basis and is closely working together with RCC.   

Strikes in late 2019 and early 2020 resulted in delays due to congestion and closures in several French ports, including Fos-sur-Mer (Marseille) and Le Havre. This can be made up for on long legs by increasing speed. But other measures have to be taken on shorter stretches. One of these measures, known as “cut & run”, involves setting a fixed departure time and halting all processing of the ship in port at that time. This allows the ship to be at the next port at the agreed time or helps if ships are tidal-bound.

“For the ‘Berlin Express’, this method was the only option available in Malta for reaching its next scheduled berth in Genoa on time on 20 January 2020,” recalls Ann-Kathrin Lichy. In principle, it is also possible to alter the port rotation to limit delays, but this possibility always depends on the terminals’ capacities. Thus, ports are only skipped if there is no other alternative and, for example, there won’t be any berths available in the foreseeable future.

During severe storms, it is especially important to quickly secure equipment in the terminals, such as the gantry cranes. In these cases of force majeure, even the best (sailing) schedules are of no help. Even the colleagues at the RCC cannot compete with Mother Nature. “Waiting it out and drinking tea is our rule of thumb, as we are powerless against it,” says Niels Benecke.

COVID-19 has forced the global economy to hold its breath for now. Ports, terminals and shipping companies have adopted extra security measures to safeguard their employees and customers. “The health and safety of everyone involved is the top priority right now,” Marten Jasper says.

“We’re doing everything in our power to ensure that our ships can operate as usual and that our customers receive their cargo on time, even under these extraordinary circumstances,” Niels Benecke adds. The fact that no two days are alike and that everything is constantly in motion is what makes everyday life at work so exciting and unique for the RCC staff. On that, all five of them agree. And experiencing so many unexpected things every day is exactly why they are especially proud that they can always rely on one constant factor: each other.


The RCC Europe is the central point of contact for the schedule compliance of the major liner services in all European ports. Launched over 20 years ago as part of the Grand Alliance, the RCC Europe has been expanded and strengthened – particularly in the last three years – to meet the ever-growing operational challenges and increased need for coordination. In addition to ensuring adherence to sailing schedules, it also plays a key role in fostering coordination among the various partner shipping companies.

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