Peak Season Market Update

September usually brings Labor Day, back-to-school activities, and Peak Season in the shipping business. As we enter the September-December peak shipping season, we do so under the most unusual of circumstances, with COVID-19, U.S. elections and social protests looming large. Almost forgotten, are the ongoing headwinds from the U.S. – China trade dispute, which continues to simmer in the background.

It is within this framework that we offer our Peak Season Market Update, to help you navigate your business through this year’s fall shipping challenges. Hopefully, you find it useful.


  • Demand for ocean imports has surged back to near pre-COVID levels
  • Air freight capacity remains very tight, with prices still elevated in many markets
  • The average rate for dry van ground freight set an all-time high in August
  • The anticipated worldwide COVID-19 vaccine distribution will further strain the global supply chain.

Peak season port containers
PeaPhoto credit: Shutterstock

Ocean Freight
In short, ocean freight is booming once again as retailers and manufacturers scramble to re-stock their depleted inventories in advance of the retail holiday season. It’s a great sign and leading indicator for our economy, with the Port of Los Angeles reporting that imports are nearly back to pre-COVID levels and near record levels of imports.

While ocean rates remain more stable than air and ground (see below), the surging demand has allowed steamship lines to pass through a couple of General Rate Increases (GRI’s) in the past 6 weeks, with more anticipated as the season ramps up.

Increased demand has also resulted in carriers slowly beginning to add back sailings that were cancelled in the Spring as COVID-19 took hold worldwide. However, the downside is that with this surge in activity, rolled bookings and tight capacity remain commonplace. We are seeing extreme congestion in ports such as Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland and elsewhere. This has resulted in chassis shortages, long lines at the port and increased waiting/detention time charges to importers.

Summary: Pricing remains relatively stable compared to air and ground, but capacity is tight and becoming more so. You should book early and allow additional lead time this year.

Air Freight
Air freight capacity remains extremely constrained due to a worldwide reduction in passenger flights. While some carriers have resorted to flying their idle passenger aircraft as “freighters”, worldwide travel is still down by 76% year-over-year.  

As a consequence of the reduced capacity and surging demand, air freight rates in many markets remain at or near their historical highs, though down from the 300-500% premium seen in the spring of this year.

While the April-May demand for freighters and high-volume charters has diminished as domestic production of PPE supplies (masks, gloves, gowns, sanitizer) has ramped up, the prospect of increased demand for global distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine remains imminent. By one account, distribution will require the use of 8,000 jumbo jet flights. That will take an enormous amount of capacity offline, potentially at the height of the shipping season.

Summary: Fewer available aircraft and surging demand will translate into higher prices to shippers, with backlogs already developing in many markets. Expect the anticipated worldwide vaccine distribution to further strain the global supply chain this fall. Be prepared to ship early and pay more than last year.

The average linehaul rate for dry van freight set an all-time record high in August. That pretty much says it all. The country as a whole continues to experience a severe shortage of drivers due to a combination of COVID layoffs, new Federal safety laws and a surging demand for home deliveries. The seasonal retail push to replenish warehouses is only adding to the crush in volume.

Competitive spot rates can still be found in some markets, though capacity and rates are tightening quickly as we head into the heart of Peak Season.

One bright spot is that fuel prices remain stable and are still down slightly year-over-year.

Summary: Expect an increasing capacity shortage as Peak Season progresses, with truckers holding all the cards right now. Rates will remain elevated with little negotiating room for shippers or brokers.

Questions about our Peak Season Market Update? Email us at or call us at 714-573-1207.

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