In February 2015, executives at the nation's busiest seaport complex were sweating out the real possibility of a labor shutdown that would have paralyzed their operations. In February 2016, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were celebrating all-time volume records for the month.
The Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest seaport, reported the best February in its 109-year history by handling 713,721 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), a 42-percent increase from a year ago. Containers moving loaded with freight rose 34.5 percent, to 519.2 TEUs. Empty containers, which are shipped back overseas to be refilled with imports, rose nearly 67 percent, to 194.4 million TEUs.
The adjacent port of Long Beach, which generally ranks second, moved 561,412 TEUs last month, a 35.9-percent increase over 2015 levels, and a February record for the 105-year-old port. Loaded containers increased 32 percent, to 418,880 TEUs, while empty containers climbed 45.5 percent.
Import traffic was the story for both ports. Imports benefited from decent demand from U.S. businesses and consumers; continuing strength in the U.S. dollar, which makes foreign imports less expensive on world markets; and the impact of the Lunar New Year, which began Feb. 8 and lasted until Feb. 13. Many Chinese factories close for a week or more, and U.S. retailers usually order extra products ahead of the lull.
At Los Angeles, loaded imports last month rose to 372,744 TEUs, a 46.6-percent increase over the prior year. At Long Beach, loaded imports rose 45.5 percent, to 295,870 TEUs. Long Beach benefited from the Feb. 18 call of the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, at 18,000 TEUs the largest containership to call in the U.S. The ship is part of French carrier CMA CGM's fleet of 18,000-TEU vessels, which will begin regular calls to West Coast ports in late March. The ship did not call at Los Angeles last month.
Phillip Sanfield, a Port of Los Angeles spokesman, said February is traditionally one of the port's slowest months. However, on the heels of strong January volumes, port officials had a sense that February would follow suit. The port was helped by robust retail buying ahead of the Lunar New Year, but its March business will likely show a drop-off as a result of the outsized ordering patterns in February, Sanfield said.
Last month's numbers are a far cry from the situation in February 2015, the height of the escalating contract battle between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports, and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing terminal operators. A five-year contract was agreed to Feb. 22, but not before labor issues affected import and export volumes at both southern California ports. Long Beach, for example, handled 413,114 total loaded and empty 20-foot containers last February. In February 2014, it handled 517,173 TEUs.