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Why Are Receiving Dates So Hard to Nail Down?

I had the privilege of speaking on export receiving dates at the 2024 Agriculture Transportation Coalition (AgTC) Annual Meeting in Tacoma. The agenda is always packed tight and measured to the minute. If an issue is important enough to make the agenda, then it is a problem that affects exporters in agriculture and beyond. 

Receiving dates are a cross-cutting issue for shippers, forwarders, and drayage providers. As the CEO of Splice, I was asked to comment on the issue because of the work we are doing to track export receiving dates. Splice connects systems and translates data where there is a lack of interoperability, and we apply this technology to track export receiving dates. The following is based on my speech.

The bottom line is that receiving dates are perplexing and hard to nail down for a variety of reasons that have no near-term solution. The best available strategy is to utilize integration and automation technology to collect and collate the changes, which is exactly what Splice Exports does to add much-needed transparency to the receiving-date process. 

The AgTC Speech

When managing export logistics in container shipping, receiving dates play a crucial role. Unfortunately, the process of disseminating and receiving changes is messy. To get a handle on the problem and potential solutions, it is valuable to break down the root causes to understand where technology can make a positive impact. 

Receiving dates encompass earliest receiving dates (ERDs), cut-off dates, and vessel schedules. Although there are distinctions among these elements, for simplicity, we will group them together under the term "receiving dates."

The ERD marks when you can start sending containers to a marine terminal or rail ramp. The latest return date or cut-off provides the final window during which a container will be accepted for its scheduled voyage. While the concept might seem straightforward, the reality is often more complex and challenging to navigate.

Among these dates, one has elevated importance, and that is the vessel arrival date. The definition of “arrival” varies based on your perspective. For an ocean carrier, “arrived” may mean that the vessel has reached the pilot station and implies that the vessel is ready to go to berth when called by the terminal. 

For a terminal, and for exporters who care foremost about when the ship will start working, arrival at berth is the imperative arrival date. The difference can be days if a vessel is forced to wait, and as explained below, myriad reasons exist for delays that cripple schedule reliability.

The Importance of Receiving Dates

Visibility into receiving dates is vital for several reasons:

  • Pulling of Containers and Chassis: Ensuring the right equipment is available when needed.

  • Submission of Railway Bills: Aligning paperwork with the movement of goods.

  • Timing of Drayage: Coordinating the transport of containers to and from terminals.

  • Order Fulfillment: Meeting customer demands on time.

  • Inventory Decisions: Managing stock levels efficiently.

  • Production Runs: Planning manufacturing schedules based on shipping timelines.

  • Various Other Factors: Depending on the specifics of the business, receiving dates can impact numerous other operations.

Receiving dates are critical for supply chain management, transportation timing, financial results, and customer relations. Mismanagement of these dates can lead to significant disruptions and increased costs.

The 3 Cs of Vessel Scheduling: Complexity, Communication, and Competition

Splice has observed thousands of bookings and engages daily with industry experts and operators to understand the root causes of receiving date problems. These challenges distill into three primary issues in vessel scheduling: Complexity, Communication, and Competition.

Key export receiving dates


Vessel schedules are influenced by numerous factors, making predictions difficult. Here are ten factors affecting vessel schedules. Many of them are familiar and current issues that encompass the Red Sea, Panama Canal, labor contract negotiations, and weather. 

Tracking these factors and incorporating them into berthing schedules is a difficult task, and while technology exists to support the planning process, it often comes down to someone’s judgment to decide how to move berth positions around. Three issues are worth briefly highlighting.

First, complexity grows exponentially as more carriers are included in the berth planning equation. Larger ports are going to have more complexity and more issues to juggle. 

Second, terminals and carriers are both determining schedules simultaneously, and the information about a schedule may not align when the parties publish them. The process of incorporating inputs from one another can vary in frequency and level of collaboration. 

Finally, the multiple variables help explain why schedule reliability is poor. Recent data from Sea Intelligence on vessel schedule reliability reveals a global average of on-time arrivals at 54.6%. The global average for days late is 5 days. For those exports beginning their journey at inland locations with rail transits to consider, these numbers are troubling. 

One factor has an outsized effect: vessel size. Not only do larger vessels take up more berth space and time to load and unload, but they also must use berths with larger cranes providing reach and lift capacity. Large vessels limit flexibility in berth planning, and when one is delayed, it can disrupt the entire berth schedule, affecting subsequent vessels.

In this photo, you can see the difference in crane height. Smaller cranes are at the very front and also in the rear. The middle cranes, but only the middle, can serve the Neo-Panamax and Ultra Large Container Vessels, and this restricts the flexibility in planning berth space. 

Next time you see those LinkedIn posts about new cranes arriving at a port near you, it’s worth taking note. 

For exporters, when one of these very large vessels is late, it causes the whole berth plan to be reset. The effect quickly impacts the rest of the vessels calling at the port, potentially delaying or accelerating the schedule depending on how the reshuffling plays out. 

Vessel schedule inconsistency impacts export receiving dates

Communication and Data

Tracking changes in receiving dates is challenging due to the variability in how this information is communicated. Carriers often use emails and booking confirmations, while terminals rely on websites. The data shared can vary significantly:

  • ERD Communication: Most carriers defer to terminals for ERD information, but not all terminals provide Latest Return Dates (LRDs).

  • Data Portals: Some terminals offer detailed vessel schedules weeks in advance, while others provide only short-term information.

Carriers use a lot of email and booking confirmations to update exporters on the changes. Sometimes automated messages—other times personalized emails. 

Terminals continue to rely on websites to communicate changes. Few have automated feeds to streamline the data delivery process. The same can be said for ocean carriers. 

The dates shared also vary. Most but not all carriers defer to the terminal for communicating the ERD. Some terminals won’t provide the LRD. Some terminals have rich portals online with vessel schedules going out 6-8 weeks. Others go about two weeks. 

Solutions like Splice can enhance transparency, speed up data flows, and mitigate risks associated with last-minute changes. They manage variability in format, content, and communication. However, research indicates that most changes occur within 24-48 hours before the ERD, with over 60% of changes happening within one day.

The variability in data looks a lot like other communications problems. They can be broken down by looking at the people, processes, and systems.

People are involved – and they should be – but it takes time to coordinate the information and reach decision-makers. Carriers have coastal teams to manage schedules, and some augment their teams with local port captains to have a better pulse on schedules as well as the other issues that go into making efficient port calls. 

Systems vary as well, as mentioned, and so does how they are put to use. Recently, I was discussing data flows with a major ocean carrier and I saw a slick planning system that coordinates vessel schedules and inputs across the organization. Changes immediately could be seen by the whole carrier team. To share with terminals, the plan was converted to a PDF and emailed, losing many of the system’s benefits. 

Processes differ in the frequency of updates, which makes a tremendous difference, too. We hear of some carriers making regular but minor updates almost daily. But some appear to make less frequent but substantial changes that force a full-scale reshuffling of berth schedules and receiving dates. This can result in abrupt changes that come at a cost to exporters. It is another inconsistency that makes pinning down schedules and export receiving dates difficult.


Berth space at terminals is a valuable commodity, leading to competition among carriers. Terminals aim to maximize berth space utilization, while carriers strive to dock as soon as they arrive to avoid costly waiting times. This competition can delay the communication of schedule and ERD changes.

In the end, for carriers, getting to berth immediately after arrival is key. Waiting is costly. 

While every carrier wants to get in first and out fast, the terminal wants to maximize berth space utilization. 

For a terminal berthing team, their goal is to make sure the space is optimized. This may mean that certain vessels have to wait their turn.

Who gets to be in the berth and at what time is where gamesmanship begins. Competitiveness—our third C—arises in the battle for berth space.

Carriers try to finagle their position in line. Being persuasive, having a dependable reputation, and sharing good data seem to be ways for carriers to try to stay in good stead and when needed, keep or advance their berthing position. 

This happens every day, and while one party wants the schedule to change in their favor, another will resist and cajole to get their desired resolution. This is not to imply that carriers and terminals are continuously at odds, but it seems that the differing interests lead to negotiation that can delay the communication of schedule and ERD changes. 

Interestingly, Splice tends to see terminals make faster updates to schedules than carriers. It could be their communication process as well as a desire to reset the schedule to maximize berth space. 

Managing Receiving Dates and Schedules

To manage the complexities of receiving dates and schedules, companies can benefit from:

  • Improved Communication: Streamlining how schedule changes are communicated can reduce delays and misunderstandings.

  • Technology Solutions: Platforms like Splice provide better visibility into data flows and help manage last-minute changes.

  • Collaboration: Enhancing cooperation between carriers and terminals can lead to more accurate and timely schedule updates.

These are near-term remedies that will improve processes to avoid additional cost and delays.

Towards Better Schedule Reliability

The complexity of vessel scheduling, communication challenges, and competitive pressures all contribute to the difficulty of managing these dates. These are long-term problems requiring investment and time to resolve. Improving schedule reliability and managing receiving dates more effectively will require:

  • Enhanced Schedule Reliability: Reducing delays and improving the accuracy of vessel arrival times.

  • Increased Berth Flexibility: Adapting terminal infrastructure to accommodate larger vessels more efficiently.

  • Consistent Data Systems: Standardizing data and information systems across the industry to ensure seamless communication.

In the immediate future, exporting shippers, forwarders, motor carriers, and railroads can move towards more reliable scheduling and better management of receiving dates—ultimately reducing costs and improving service for all stakeholders involved—by leveraging technology like Splice to integrate, organize, and match receiving dates to their benefit.

Three keys to making export receiving dates more consistent


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