The Suez Canal blockage as a catalyst for innovation

The Suez Canal blockage prompts us to revisit access arrangements and practices for individual ships using capacity-constrained maritime infrastructures and passages. In a new article predicting ship transits in capacity-constrained areas by Mikael Lind, Wolfgang Lehmacher, Lars Jensen, Theo Notteboom, Torbjörn Rydbergh, Rachael White, Hanane Becha, Luisa Rodriguez, and Peter Sand, the authors verify the model of deriving queue numbers based on the arrival sequence of ships at the two entrances to the Suez Canal translates into actual passage through the canal leading to an elaboration on the concept of slot management for congested areas.

On March 23, 2021, the 20,388 teu container ship Ever Given, one of the largest of the world, ran aground in the Suez Canal. When the Canal was re-opened on 29 March 2021, more than 350 ships were queuing at both ends. It took six days to bring queues to normal levels.

The Suez Canal blockage prompts us to revisit access arrangements and practices for ships using capacity-constrained maritime infrastructures and passages. Predicting queueing by forecasting the throughput of the Suez Canal and a slot management system can help optimize planning of operations along the maritime supply chain and infrastructure utilization.

Better planning tools for congested areas

Shipping is the world’s largest and oldest sharing economy. Infrastructure, resources, and the natural environment are co-used by many actors requiring coordination for optimal operations. The first-come, first-served principle determines the modus operandi of many capacity-constrained zones, especially ports and canals. This leads to “hurry up, then wait” practices, fuel wastage and unnecessary emissions. Good reasons to change current practices.

During the Suez Canal blockage, ship queues increased quickly (figure 1). The day after the Canal re-opened, maritime supply chain actors could not estimate when a ship waiting in line or heading towards the Canal would pass through. This uncertainty highlighted the need for better tools to establish situational awareness and forecast flows of ships.

Figure 1: Days in waiting zone before the north and south bound passages through the Suez Canal – all ships (top) and container ships (bottom)

A possible new model

Assigning a queue number to each of the ships arriving at the Canal could improve operation. Expanded to data and predictions about ships heading towards the Canal, queue numbers might form a foundation for optimizing the timings for any ship to pass through the passage.

AIS data helps to capture the movement of all ships (Figure 1). Thus, one can build prediction models that consider the number of ships heading towards the Canal to calculate expected waiting time and alternative slot availability. As ships act on such forecasts and adjust their speed the predicted future situation at the Canal for other ships approaching changes. As such, each ship’s context becomes a function of the behaviour of other ships heading towards the Canal. Continuous situational awareness updating is essential (as illustrated in Figure 2).

Figure 2: Dynamic adaptation of ships’ changed behaviour

Inspired by how human practices are arranged, it would be reasonable to consider implementing “virtual arrival and transit tickets”, awarded while the ship is en-route. This would be the first step towards a need-driven, slot-based model where queue numbers are determined prior to ship arrival. This would be a shift from governance based on actual arrivals to virtual arrivals adopting the appointment economy.

There might even be possibilities to “jump the queue” if agreements are established for passage slots to be exchanged between parties utilising chokepoints. This would then enable the shipping industry to inform subsequent actors in the value chain about arrival times.

The first-come, first-served principle may turn out to be outdated. Sharing data with trusted parties to build intelligence is an obvious goal in the digital age. Maritime digitalisation is accelerating and an essential part of the solution. A maritime chokepoint deblocking model allowing for coordination prior to the physical arrival seems a timely call to action in today’s turbulent times.


    1. The old and proven/tested ideas are getting less and less popular. However , I see one missing item in this flow chart above . Makes me wonder , where is the ” MARLBORO” input/output box/segment?. Could have a similar role as the transistor/amplifier in the ” jump the que process” circuits.

    2. “Shipping is the world’s largest and oldest sharing economy”.
      The silk road comes to mind. It was the largest back then.

  1. This surely has to be a belated April Fools joke.
    Nine so-called experts have got together and the best they can come up with is the system my local butcher operates : ‘Pick a number and wait your turn’?
    All the pseudo-academic babble and flow charts in the world won’t dress up what is a basic normality in everyday life- even the local butcher is leveraging his digital de-blocking model.

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