Maryland port officials hope that the port of Baltimore will reap a cargo windfall from an agreement under discussion by two of the port's most important steamship lines, Maersk and Orient Overseas Container Line.
Neither Maersk nor OOCL has confirmed an agreement, but if a deal has been reached, both lines are likely to revise their ship schedules. The impact on Baltimore could be substantial, probably to the port's advantage, but possibly to its detriment.
Maryland port officials are anxiously awaiting word on what ports the two lines will continue to visit if a ship-sharing agreement has been reached.
"My sense is that within a week or so there'll be some kind of announcement," Adrian G. Teel, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said Tuesday. Ship-sharing agreements, he said, "can have a dramatic effect on port service. We're keeping our ear to the ground."
Maersk and OOCL compete on trans-Atlantic service between the East Coast of the United States and Northern Europe. Both lines send ships to Baltimore and Hampton Roads, Va.
The ship-sharing agreement would permit each line to call at just one of the two ports, while using its partner to provide direct service from the other.
"It would behoove OOCL to make use of Maersk Line's capabilities in Baltimore, where Maersk is entrenched," said one steamship line executive. He said it also seemed logical that Maersk would divert to Baltimore the one ship a week it schedules in Hampton Roads to take advantage of the new arrangement. "Why get together if you don't get any benefit out of it?" he said of Maersk.
If that happens, the additional Maersk ship each week would offset the loss of OOCL's weekly vessel.
Although the number of ships calling at the port would remain unchanged, the amount of cargo moving through Baltimore probably would increase because of the likelihood that the OOCL cargo would continue to move through Baltimore via Maersk ships and that the additional Maersk ship would bring some cargo that had been moving through Virginia.
"If it worked out that way, it would have a very positive effect on Baltimore," Mr. Teel said.
But there is also a danger that Baltimore would lose direct service by OOCL just a few months after it began, without getting any additional service from Maersk to offset the loss.
That could be a real setback -- both economic and psychological -- since the port has been trumpeting the new OOCL service as evidence that Baltimore is regaining its competitive edge.
The port has reason to be optimistic. There is a general sense that Baltimore has become more competitive and ship lines less inclined to look for reasons to leave.
During 1991, eight steamship lines began service in Baltimore, and five other lines added to their service.
Another reason for optimism is the faith Maersk showed in Baltimore in November, when it agreed to a 10-year lease of a terminal operated by its sister company, Universal Maritime Service Corp., at Dundalk Marine Terminal. That should act as a strong inducement to Maersk to bring more of its ships through Baltimore.
Anthony A. Chiarello, Universal's assistant vice president in Baltimore, said yesterday that he had read reports of the Maersk-OOCL agreement but that he had not received any official confirmation of the deal.
"We hear the same rumors," he said, adding, "It seems obvious that something is going on."
David L. Bindler, regional director for Maersk, confirmed yesterday that talks were being held with OOCL, but he said he did not know whether an agreement will be reached.
Maersk brings about two ships a week to Baltimore. That service will remain in Baltimore even if an agreement is reached with OOCL, he said.
If OOCL decides it wants to cease direct vessel calls to Baltimore, something will have to be done about the two-year lease it signed with the Maryland Port Administration in September. That agreement, which called for OOCL to bring a ship a week to Baltimore, may not be ironclad, Mr. Teel suggested, since the port agency is less worried about keeping OOCL's ships in Baltimore than in keeping OOCL's cargo.
"What we're looking for is to increase the cargo flow through Baltimore," Mr. Teel said. "Whatever they need us to do to make that happen, we're glad to do. As long as the cargo is coming through Baltimore, that's the main thing. That's our mission."