HMM gambles on classic panamaxes for Asia-Europe return

With an eye on 2020 when its agreement with Maersk and MSC comes up for renewal, Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM) from South Korea is launching its own standalone Asia-North Europe service this April.

The Asia-Europe Express (AEX) will have a 10-week rotation and feature ten 4,700 teu ships with a first sailing departing Busan on April 7.

The AEX launch marks HMM’s return to the Asia – Europe tradelane as a vessel operator, one year after the carrier withdrew its ships from the trade as part of its agreement to work with 2M partners Maersk and MSC.

The service on these smaller ships for this tradelane dominated by ultra large container vessels will offer the fastest connections between Busan and Rotterdam with an advertised transit time of 30 days, compared to 33-39 days on rival services.

HMM is gearing up for a swathe of 22,000 teu ship orders for delivery in 2020 which would also go on the Asia – Europe tradelane.

Analysts at Alphaliner described HMM’s new “baby-sized” AEX service as a gamble, operating independently and at a significant cost disadvantage to its larger rivals.

The recent history of HMM, however, explains much of its business decisions today. Two years ago HMM came close to bankruptcy, but managed to survive via a massive restructuring while its peer Hanjin folded. During the restructuring process, HMM’s application to join new container grouping, THE Alliance, was vetoed, forcing it to head to Europe and take on an onerous three-year membership of sorts with Maersk and MSC. Since that bitter experience, HMM has sought to be in greater control of its destiny, fostering a pan-Korean alliance on intra-Asia trades for instance, while forming a joint venture in the heavylift sector with AAL.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. If you look at Hapag-Lloyds’ online schedules, the FE4 service (a THE Alliance service) is listed with a 31 day transit time from Busan to Rotterdam. The proposed 30 days is still a faster service, but only with a 1 day margin, not the minimum 3 day margin mentioned here.

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