Off the coast of Los Angeles, more than two dozen container ships filled with exercise bikes, electronics and other highly sought imports have been idling for as long as two weeks.
In Kansas City, farmers are struggling to ship soybeans to buyers in Asia. In China, furniture destined for North America piles up on factory floors.
Around the planet, the pandemic has disrupted trade to an extraordinary degree, driving up the cost of shipping goods and adding a fresh challenge to the global economic recovery. The virus has thrown off the choreography of moving cargo from one continent to another.
At the center of the storm is the shipping container, the workhorse of globalization.
Americans stuck in their homes have set off a surge of orders from factories in China, much of it carried across the Pacific in containers — the metal boxes that move goods in towering stacks atop enormous vessels. As households in the United States have filled bedrooms with office furniture and basements with treadmills, the demand for shipping has outstripped the availability of containers in Asia, yielding shortages there just as the boxes pile up at American ports.
record-high freight prices in reporting more than $2.7 billion in pretax earnings in the last three months of 2020.
No one knows how long the upheaval will last, though some experts assume containers will remain scarce through the end of the year, as the factories that make them — nearly all of them in China — scramble to catch up with demand.
Since they were first deployed in 1956, containers have revolutionized trade by allowing goods to be packed into standard size receptacles and hoisted by cranes onto rail cars and trucks — effectively shrinking the globe.
Containers are how flat panel displays made in South Korea are moved to plants in China that assemble smartphones and laptops, and how those finished devices are shipped across the Pacific to the United States.
Any hitch means delay and extra cost for someone. The pandemic has disrupted every part of the journey.
Peloton outlined plans to invest $100 million in air shipping and expedited ocean freight.
But even in normal times, airfreight is roughly eight times the cost of sea shipment. Most airfreight is carried in the cargo holds of passenger jets. With air travel severely constrained, so are available cargo slots.