Shipping giant Maersk schedules return to Red Sea despite Houthi attacks

Following formation of US-led task force to protect vessels against maritime attacks from Yemen, top shipping companies plan tentative returns to shorter routes

Containers of Danish shipping and logistics company Maersk are seen in Copenhagen, Denmark, on September 14, 2023. (Sergei Gapon/AFP)
Containers of Danish shipping and logistics company Maersk are seen in Copenhagen, Denmark, on September 14, 2023. (Sergei Gapon/AFP)

OSLO, Norway (Reuters) — Denmark’s Maersk has scheduled several dozen container vessels to travel via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea in the coming days and weeks, it said on Wednesday, in a further sign that global shipping firms are returning to the route.

The world’s top shipping companies, including container giants Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd, stopped using Red Sea routes after the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen began targeting vessels earlier this month, disrupting global trade.

The Houthis have launched more than 100 drone and missile attacks in recent weeks, targeting 14 commercial and merchant vessels in the Red Sea. The group has joined several other Iranian allies and proxies in targeting Israel in the wake of the October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza.

While the group initially threatened to attack any vessel that they believe to be linked to Israel, it has launched a number of attacks on ships traveling under the Norwegian and Liberian flags, among others.

Maersk’s share price fell 5 percent by early Wednesday afternoon, partly reversing last week’s gains, as a return to the shorter routes through the Suez Canal from voyages around Africa might prompt a freight rates correction.

Other shipping stocks also fell, including Hapag-Lloyd which dropped 6%, oil tanker group Frontline which was down 5.3% and car shipping service Hoegh Autoliners which was 3% lower.

Maersk said on December 24 it was preparing a return to the Red Sea for both eastbound and westbound journeys, citing the deployment of a US-led military operation to protect vessels against Houthi attacks, but provided few details.

The US-led task force was announced last week by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and initially included Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. Greece has since said it will send a warship to join the coalition and Australia has said it will send 11 military personnel.

Several other countries have also agreed to be involved in the operation but prefer not to be publicly named, a US defense official said last week on the condition of anonymity to discuss additional details of the new mission that have not been publicly announced.

Illustrative — The ‘Vilnia Maersk’ container vessel is unloaded at the ‘Jade Weserport’ container terminal in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, November 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Maersk’s schedule remains subject to change based on specific contingency plans that may be formed over the coming days, the company said on Wednesday.

France’s CMA CGM on Tuesday said it was increasing the number of vessels traveling through the Suez Canal.

Among the vessels listed in a Maersk advisory to clients on Wednesday was the Maren Maersk, which departed Tangiers on December 24 and would “continue via Suez Canal” with an estimated time of arrival in Singapore on January 14.

But many of its vessels are still scheduled to take the journey around Africa, the advisory showed.

Maersk has since December 19 rerouted ships around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope to avoid attacks, charging customers extra fees and adding weeks to the time it takes to transport goods from Asia to Europe and to the east coast of North America.

It announced on December 22 that it would add charges of $700 for a standard 20-foot container traveling from China to Northern Europe, consisting of a $200 transit disruption surcharge and a $500 peak season surcharge.

The transit disruption charge was imposed last week with immediate effect while the peak season addition is valid from January 1. It was not immediately clear how the decision to restart some Red Sea shipments would affect the surcharges.

The company declined to comment further when asked about its vessel schedules.

“At the moment, we cannot say anything more than what has been shared,” a Maersk spokesperson said in a statement.

German rival Hapag-Lloyd still considers the situation too dangerous to pass through the Suez Canal, a spokesperson for the company said on Wednesday, adding that it would continue to reroute its vessels via the Cape of Good Hope.

“We continuously assess the situation and plan a next review on Friday,” the spokesperson said.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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