What Is Causing Port Congestion?

What Is Causing Port Congestion?

April 27, 2022

Freight shipping and port congestion became an enormous issue when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While much of the world and society seems to be opening up and returning to normal, many businesses are still struggling with clogged, slow-moving supply chains. This is especially true at the ports, which seem to be struggling with chronic congestion.


We’ve found that many businesses are frustrated and confused about chronic congestion at the ports, but we have answers! Below, we’ll talk about what is causing port congestion, including some more obvious (and not so obvious) reasons. We’ll also talk about some ways you can avoid port congestion and keep your supply chain running smoothly and dependably.

Port Congestion Cause #1: Labor Shortage at Ports

When COVID-19 originally hit, a lot of the economy came to a screeching halt. Consumers cut spending, and business cut orders, which means very few freight orders were coming through at the ports. As a result, many ports laid of workers that weren’t immediately needed. However, demand would quickly return in record amounts, the ports didn’t have enough workers to unload containers, creating port congestion.


That created a cascading effect. There weren’t enough workers to unload containers, which meant there was a delay sending empty containers back to Asia, which meant there weren’t containers for new orders to be shipped, which created more of a delay. The supply chain ended up getting hit in multiple places because there wasn’t enough labor in place.


Unfortunately, fixing the port labor shortage wasn’t as easy as simply rehiring laid off workers or hiring new talent. The pandemic also brought an unprecedented labor shortage that continues to persist, making it even harder to fill vacant port positions. While ports are slowly catching up, finding labor is still a national issue, and one that will continue to contribute to port congestion.

Port Congestion Cause #2: Truck Driver Shortage

The ports aren’t the only industry experience a labor shortage. Freight trucking has been experiencing labor shortages for years, and while there’s a few signs it might be easing, businesses can expect the availability of truck drivers to be persistently low.


Why is there a shortage with truck drivers? Truck driving is a demanding job, so many drivers quit or went on strike. The industry has had difficulty finding new drivers, even with increased driver’s salaries from many companies.


Not only has there been a driver shortage, there has also been a truck shortage. When demand eventually rebounded, there just weren’t enough trucks to meet the demand for orders, creating ever delays and congestion at the ports. When orders are waiting to be put on trucks, they’re taking up space for other orders that needed to be unloaded from incoming containers.

Port Congestion Cause #3: Chassis Shortage

When a container is ready to be unloaded onto a truck, it requires a chassis designed to support sea freight containers while they’re transported on the road. The past few years have brought a severe chassis shortage with it. Part of that are factories having problems sourcing raw materials to make them, while the other is containers waiting on chassis without drivers to take them out.


The shortage has been severe enough that the Federal Maritime Commission (the FMC) approved of a chassis pool that operators in the southern part of the United States can use. This will help to ease some of the shortage issues, but as long ports are congested and there’s a shortage of truck drivers, the chassis issue will still be a lingering problem.  

Port Congestion Cause #4 Unprecedented Ecommerce Demand

Ecommerce demand is down from it’s historic 2021 peak, but we’re still experiencing historically high online orders. High ecommerce demand is going to continue to contribute to port congestion because the ports just can’t clear containers fast enough to keep up with orders being placed.


This unprecedented demand is also hitting the 4th Quarter worse than usual. While Q4 shipping always faces delays, they continue to be worse than they’ve been in the past, because shopper demand is still quite strong.

Seasonal Issues that Impact Port Congestion

The four reasons we just discussed are unique to this point in history, but there are other, more predicable causes of port congestion. Businesses can prepare and mitigate some of the expected congestion caused by these seasonal, or occasional, issue: 

Holiday Demand (Q4)

Any experience business knows that the holiday demand of Q4 will bring shipping delays and port congestion, regardless of other factors. Businesses often plan and buy for Q4 shopping very early in the year, oftentimes shortly after the end of the previous holiday shopping season.

Labor Strikes

Labor strikes in any industry that are related to the ports will cause port congestion. There have been rumblings of labor disputes within port unions this fall, and as unions continue to enjoy national popularity, this increases the likelihood of port labor unions willing to strike.


The risk of labor strikes isn’t just with port labor, though. Congress just narrowly averted a national rail worker strike, and discontent among rail workers is still high. A strike from rail workers would not only cause enormous port congestion (since train freight is often used to ship from ports), but it would grind an enormous portion of the U.S. supply chain to a halt.

For now, it seems a national strike has been averted, but businesses should continue to keep an eye on the news regarding rail workers, as they continue to be overworked in a time-demanding industry.

Government shutdowns

Federal budget standoffs are not uncommon in the U.S., and they sometimes lead to government shutdowns. While U.S. Customs and its services don’t usually stop under a shutdown, many related agencies are (like the Federal Department of Agriculture). This could lead to delays in clearing certain shipping products, which may cause port delays.  

Severe Weather

Finally, severe weather can cause port congestion. If it’s not safe for container ships to unload or for port workers to do their jobs, those services are slowed or stopped until the inclement weather passes. This pause will cause temporary port congestion, though it’s usually quickly cleared.

However, since ports are already dealing with chronic congestion, severe weather may create much longer delays than usual. Businesses should pay special attention to weather around port cities (both the originating port and receiving port) to be able to anticipate potential delays.

When Will Port Congestion End?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the chronic conditions causing port congestion. Chassis are still in short supply, as are port workers and truck drivers. Congestion caused by seasonal issues usually have an expected end. For example, Q4 congestion usually lets up towards the end of Q4 and the beginning of Q1.

How Can I Avoid Port Congestion

Since the chronic issues of port congestion will be here for the foreseeable future, the next best thing is trying to avoid port congestion as much as possible. Kanary has been battling port congestion with clients for years, and we’ve cataloged a few tips (some more obvious than others) about how to avoid port congestion.

Order Products Off-Season

Ordering products off-season is a great way to avoid the crunch of demand during busy seasons like Q4. This is especially useful if you are ordering products that aren’t dependent on customer orders (like materials you need to run your business). Businesses regularly make bulk orders in the spring specifically to avoid congestion later in the year.

Use Air Freight

Air freight is a potential option to avoid port congestion, but it’s not a practical solution for all products. Air freight is faster and more dependable, but also much more expensive, and for the majority of products, it’s not worth the cost to exclusively shift to air freight to avoid port congestion.

However, air freight can be a patchwork solution if there is something critical you have to have and can’t have delayed by port congestion. This could be critical components for machinery, packaging in order to sell products, or any other material that is required for your business to operate.

Consider Direct-to-Customer Fulfillment

If you are placing bulk orders for products that will be shipped to a warehouse to fulfill customer orders, you may have an option that cuts out the need to deal with ports at all. Kanary partners with EcommOps for direct fulfillment. Both of our companies operate directly out of China, and EcommOps is able to directly fulfill customer orders from a China warehouse.


Since this style of fulfillment ships directly to customers from China (instead of ordering bulk products that have to go through the ports and customs), business can often avoid port congestion. There’s no container to unload or return, and these orders often use alternative shipping routes. EcommOps (and companies like them) specialize in shipping options that help to avoid port congestion issues and get products to customers quickly.


Direct-to-consumer fulfillment is only for a solution to businesses that bulk order products to fulfill customer orders. For businesses involved in B2C ecommerce, direct-to-consumer fulfillment from a China-based warehouse is something that should be considered.

Trucking vs Rail

Currently, rail is experiencing unusually high levels of congestion, which may give the impression that there is “port congestion” (when it’s really rail delays and threats of labor strikes). It may be in your best interest to consider truck freight, even given the driver and chassis shortage, if rail congestion is severe enough.

This is why it’s important to know all of your shipping options, especially once your products have arrived in the states.

Use Consolidated Shipping

Consolidated shipping is a shipping strategy that aims to make the most efficient use of shipping containers. Generally, instead of shipping an order as soon as it’s complete, products will be held in temporary storage until there is enough to completely fill a shipping container. This could be multiple orders from one supplier, or multiple orders from multiple suppliers.


There’s a lot of benefits to consolidated shipping, but one of the biggest ones is that it makes navigating the ports a much simpler process. When you have a full container (or an FCL container) there’s a special spot in the ports where you can disembark. You won’t have to compete with space with LCL (less-than container loads), which can make port congestion less of an issue.

Consolidated shipping makes clearing customs more straightforward, since you aren’t at the mercy of other, unrelated orders having custom issues. Finally, since you have a dedicated space to unload containers, it’s often easier to get containers onto truck freight to get to their final destination.

Partner with a Sourcing Specialist

Partnering with a sourcing specialist, like Kanary, can help you to avoid a lot of the issues contributing to port congestion. For example, some of our specialties include:


●     Coordinating consolidated shipping

●     Making sure all customs paperwork is in order so there aren't avoidable delays

●     Quickly addressing and resolving customs issues as they arrive

●     Coordinating truck freight for when your order arrives

●     Choosing the best shipping method from the port, be it truck freight or train


If you’ve been frustrated with trying to navigate slow, clogged ports, we’d love to help. You can reach out to us here, and we’ll take a look at how our services might be able to help you avoid port congestion, as well as making sure your supply chain is as streamlined as possible.

Kanary doesn’t work with all businesses. If we don’t think our services are a good match for what you’re looking for, we can refer you to a sourcing specialist that might be a better fit. We look forward to seeing how we can partner with your business!

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why are detention fees more common with port congestion?

Detention fees are when you have to pay a fee because you didn’t return your shipping container back to the port in time. Usually, after you have delivered products to their final destination, you’re responsible for delivering a container back to the port so it can be used for future orders.


Historically, this has been a straightforward process. However, historic port congestion makes this a far more complicated issue. Port congestion means that both incoming and outgoing traffic is stalled, so you may be in line to deliver your container back on time, but so is everyone else. It may be days before you finally have a chance to check in your container and formally return it.


Even though it’s not your fault that you can’t check in your container for return, it won’t matter. If your container isn’t checked in by the given deadline (regardless of congestion), the port will charge you a detention. Using techniques (like the ones we discussed above) is a great way to avoid port congestion and unexpected, unavoidable fees.

What is direct-to-customer China fulfillment?

Direct-to-customer China fulfillment is a fulfillment strategy that businesses can use if they partner with China-based suppliers. Instead of placing bulk orders, shipping them via sea freight, unloading them from ports, and delivering those products to fulfillment warehouses, the product order goes straight from the China supplier to a China fulfillment warehouse, which fulfills orders to customers directly.


If your business is ecommerce based, and you’ve been frustrated with port congestion hampering your supply chain, considering direct-to-customer China fulfillment may be an excellent option for your business. If you’re curious, reach out to us! Kanary can help take a look at your business strategy, determine if direct-to-customer fulfillment is right for you, and help you create a plan that allows you to improve the customer experience without dealing with port congestion.

Do government shutdowns affect port congestion?

Government shutdowns could make ports run more slowly, but U.S. Customs and ports don’t stop during government shutdowns. Even though the federal government is “shutdown,” there are certain departments that remain functioning, and U.S. Customs is one of them.


However, you may find that required documentation for certain goods does slow down. For example, large portions of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do shutdown when the federal government does, so if you’re importing foods, you could see a delay in approving paperwork or getting necessary certifications.

Is COVID-19 still causing port congestion?

In most parts of the world, COVID-19 is not causing port congestion, with China being a noticeable exception. China only recently eased its zero Covid policies, which were notorious for causing all kinds of supply chain disruptions. It made it difficult to keep labor working in factories, as well as for orders to consistently ship on time without getting delayed.


These policies continue to contribute to port congestion, though they are not a major cause of what’s happening worldwide.

When will freight prices decrease?

Due to high demand, port congestion, and a shipping container shortage, businesses have faced some of the highest freight prices to date. However, there are signs that is about to change. There was an exceptional decline in freight prices at the end of 2022, with experts citing lower demand as a driving factor.


If this continues, experts predict that there may an all-out price war, since the shortage of vessels and containers is expected to no longer be an issue. There may be a steep decline in freight prices in 2023, and businesses may find it far easier to book containers and find vessels for shipment.

Does port congestion impact customs clearance?

Port congestion won’t typically impact clearing customs, aside from adding to the overall time frame of being able to unload your products. However, customs issues can have a devastating effect on your lead times, especially if you’re already struggling with congestion issues.


There are a few steps you can take to make sure you package doesn’t get stuck in customs, including:


  • Making sure you HTS codes are accurate
  • Providing all the required customs paperwork before your container reaches the port (like the Bill of Lading or commercial invoice)
  • Using FCL shipments as much as possible

A supply specialist, like Kanary, can help you clear customs while avoiding common (and unnecessary) mistakes.

What can I do to streamline my supply chain to compensate for port congestion?

Depending on your business needs, dealing with port congestion may be unavoidable. The next best thing is to make sure your overall supply chain is streamlined as much as possible to make up for time that is eaten away during periods of high congestion. A few good pieces of advice include:


  • Ordering containers at the right time (not too late where you have delays waiting for an available one, but not too early to where you would pay unnecessary fees)
  • Regularly communicating with your suppliers to quickly resolve production issues as they arise
  • Using consolidated shipping to reduce the amount of sea freight shipments you need (and to make the customs process at the ports smoother)
  • If applicable, using direct-to-consumer fulfillment from a China-based fulfillment warehouse
  • Choosing suppliers that are close to shipping ports or temporary storage units (which are used for consolidated shipping)
  • Using the best domestic freight options after you get through port congestion (for example, choosing between truck and rail freight)


Some businesses may not have the expertise, or the resources required to follow all these tips to keep their supply chain consistent. This is where Kanary shines. As a sourcing specialist, we’re able to provide all of the services mentioned in these tips (and more) to businesses that want a smooth consistent supply chain.


If you’re interested in seeing if our services are a good match for your business, reach out to us! You can fill out our contact form, and our team will take a look at your business to see if what we offer is what your business needs to grow.


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