Long Beach and Los Angeles no longer sending out mostly empty ships

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My column this week begins with this image:

The giant ships from Asia steam into the Southern California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach laden with flat-screen TVs, flip-flops, copying machines, nail clippers, Thomas the Tank Engines and all the other necessities of modern life. They leave port a few days later loaded mainly with empty containers.

I meant this as a description of the state of affairs for the past decade or so, and as such it’s accurate. But Art Wong of the Port of Long Beach points out in an e-mail that it hasn’t been true for the past few months. In 2007 Long Beach imported 3,704,593 loaded twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), shipped out 1,574,241 loaded TEUs, and handled 2,033,631 empties–almost all of which were outbound. So “loaded mainly with empty containers” is correct with respect to last year. Starting early this year, though, things changed. Loaded outbound containers outnumbered empties in February, March, and April, the first such three-month run, Wong says, since the spring of 2000. The totals so far in 2008 are 1,033,655 loaded inbound, 595,232 loaded outbound, and 476,853 empties. And while in 2000 the balance swung back to mostly empties for the full year, I get the feeling that won’t be the case this year.

The trend is the same at the Port of Los Angeles, where the year-to-date totals are 1,286,333 loaded inbound, 16,916 empty inbound (L.A. separates this out; Long Beach does not), 604,113 loaded outbound, and 547,988 empty outbound.

I’m kinda kicking myself that I didn’t dig up this most recent data (it wasn’t hard to find at all) and include it in the column. It actually would have supported my overall point. Note to self: Spend more time reporting and less time ruminating.