Orient Overseas Container Line, which seven years ago initiated an exodus of steamship lines from the port, announced yesterday that it will resume direct service to Baltimore.
Maritime executives welcomed the decision as a big economic and psychological boost for the port and as evidence that Baltimore may have begun to regain its competitive edge.
"I believe it's a milestone. It's a clear indication of what we can accomplish when we work together," Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., said yesterday. "Clearly we've demonstrated over the past year we can be competitive and stable."
Hong Kong-based OOCL, one of the biggest steamship lines in the world, will be bringing one ship a week to the state's new high-tech Seagirt Marine Terminal. The first ship is scheduled to arrive Oct. 25 as part of OOCL's service between the East Coast and Northern Europe.
"It's a tremendous boost for the port of Baltimore. It provides us with the kind of momentum we need," said Adrian G. Teel, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.
Seagirt was conceived as a facility that would help the port attract new business, but all three of the lines now using Seagirt already were calling at the port. The attraction of Seagirt was one of the major reasons OOCL decided to bring its ships back to Baltimore, said Michael Angelos, the port's deputy director.
Mr. Angelos said C. H. Tung, the head of the OOCL organization, visited Seagirt himself. "He told me he thinks it's the finest facility in the world," Mr. Angelos said.
Al Benki, president of OOCL USA, said, "We chose the Seagirt terminal because it is the most modern facility with the potential for the best production in the United States."
An improved labor climate in Baltimore also seems to have contributed to OOCL's decision to return. When OOCL left, the port's longshoremen still operated under rules that allowed them to quit work during bad weather.
"OOCL had a real bad taste in their mouth over [not] working in the rain," said Anthony Chiarello, an assistant vice president with Universal Maritime Service Corp., a stevedoring company.
The acceptance by the port's longshoremen two years ago of a contract requiring them to work in the rain helped to improve the port's labor image and to pave the way for OOCL's return, Mr. Chiarello said.
Edward Burke, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, said that he and other labor leaders in the port have been working closely with management and the MPA to persuade lines to come to Baltimore. The success in bringing back OOCL could help the port lure other lines, he said.
"Hopefully this will make other lines take a serious look," he said.
The bay pilots were among the groups that campaigned hard to bring OOCL back to Baltimore. For example, members of the Association of Maryland Pilots rode on some of OOCL's ships to assure the line they could be operated safely in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, an important link between Baltimore and ports to the north. "I think it was an important issue," said Capt. Michael J. Prenger, vice president of the pilot's association.
He, too, welcomed the OOCL decision as a piece of good news. "It's nice to win one once in a while," he said.
And the port has received another bit of good news. Atlantic Container Line, one of the biggest lines at the port, has committed to remain in Baltimore for at least two more years.
ACL has long been a pillar of the steamship line service offered by a port, but its future here was clouded by the recent decision of the MPA to bar ACL from Seagirt.
Seagirt was designed as a pure container terminal, but ACL handles a variety of cargo, including boats, cars and heavy equipment, as well as containers.
This summer, when ACL was ready to sign a Seagirt lease, the MPA refused, saying ACL would have to stay at Dundalk Marine Terminal. The question was whether ACL would agree.
Yesterday, James P. Meila, vice president of terminals for ACL, said that his company had signed a two-year pact with Ceres Corp. for stevedoring and terminal services at Dundalk Marine Terminal.
"We were disappointed not to be able to get into Seagirt, but we're going forward with Ceres," he said. "Certain things we have put behind us."
While OOCL's ships will continue to call at Baltimore and the rival ports of Hampton Roads, Va., port officials here are hopeful that after operating for a while out of both ports, OOCL will make Baltimore its sole port in the mid-Atlantic states.
Baltimore and Hampton Roads appeal to lines in very distinct ways, Mr. Chiarello explained. Hampton Roads, a few miles from the open ocean, offers significant operating advantages because ships can serve mid-Atlantic and Midwestern markets without the time and cost of the 150-mile-trip up the bay. But Baltimore, in the middle of the fourth-largest consumer market in the nation, has a much larger cargo base.
In this instance, OOCL seems to have decided that the potential cargo gains are worth the trip to Baltimore.