(Nov. 21) In a decision that takes away a valued transportation option from traders of Chilean fruit, Maersk Inc. will not offer direct container service from Chile to North America in 2006-07, according to Jessica Kubacz, manager of external communications for the Madison, N.J.-based company.

Kubacz said that Maersk’s direct INCA (South America to the East Coast of North America) service was canceled at the end of the Chilean reefer season last spring.

She said Maersk will continue to offer weekly service from Chile but that now all cargo from the west coast of South America bound for the U.S. now transfers in Panama to services connecting with ports on the East Coast, West Coast or Gulf Coast. Transit times vary from 14 to 20 days, depending on location.

Kubacz said the changes will limit Maersk’s Panama Canal transits. Canal tolls are expected to double during the next 20 years to pay for a $5.3 billion expansion project that voters approved in October.

“Feeder vessels running up and down West Coast of South America can be adjusted based on the seasonal flows without major disruption to the key markets,” she said.

According to the Panama Canal Authority, more than 3.3 million tons of bananas and 1.1 million tons of refrigerated fruit made the eight- to 10-hour trip through the canal in 2004.

Maersk’s 14-day, direct container service to the East Coast will be missed, said Peter Kopke, president of importer William H. Kopke Jr., Lake Success, N.Y. Last season, containers shipped every Monday. That timely and regular schedule for containers won’t be in place this year, he said.

This year, he said, container transport time could be 21 to 22 days, compared with the compressed 14-day service of last year.

Jonathan Bass, president of Dole Chile SA, Santiago, said the increase in container use has been the biggest change in Chilean shipping during the past decade. Even with the end of INCA service by Maersk, he said the container movement is projected to grow.

Craig Uchizono, general manager of the Southern Hemisphere program for Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos., said the change will have little effect on his employer, which receives the majority of its Chilean imports from Valparaiso, Chile-based CSAV. The break-bulk vessel service from Valparaiso to the Port of Long Beach, Calif., takes 12 to 14 days.

“It’s still a small percentage that goes in full containers,” said Tom Tjerandsen, marketing manager for the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, Sacramento, Calif. “Break-bulk is the norm, and it goes on pallets.”