Ports of Auckland's chief executive is the first to admit the mid-year financial results don't make pretty reading, but he's confident the operation's productivity is close to turning a corner.
Tony Gibson said he's "very disappointed" in the unaudited figures for the six months to December 31, which show a 20.8 per cent decrease in net profit after tax to $13.6 million, a 7.3 per cent fall in revenue to $114.1m, and a 12.4 per cent reduction in container volumes to 416,173 TEUs compared to the same period last year.
Imported car volumes were down 15 per cent and total general cargo volumes were 3.15m tonnes against 3.29m for the previous corresponding period.
The Auckland Council-owned port will not pay an interim dividend this year on account of its ongoing capital investment programme.
"The first half of this financial year has been incredibly hard for the business, but we can look forward with some optimism," Gibson said.
"That is not to say the second half won't be difficult - it will - but we have plans in place to resolve the issues that affected us in this period. We expect the current issues to be behind us in the second half of calendar 2021 and to be able to lift performance in FY2022."
Those issues are around Covid-19's impact on the port company's prolonged container terminal automation implementation project, a shortage of crane and straddle drivers and a lacklustre container throughput performance at a time of rampant global container shipping congestion.
Gibson said most disappointing was how Covid-19 had delayed automation's "go-live" date in March last year.
"We couldn't train people, we couldn't bring people out from Europe to support go-live.
"But despite what is being said, we are very happy with progress. We have now had nearly 80 ships through the northern berth and on truck delivery (side) the auto straddles are faster than the manual strads."
Delays in implementation and a labour shortage have resulted in New Zealand's main imports port operating a mixed manual and automation system with lower productivity at a time of global shipping congestion. Frustrated importers, freight forwarders, retailers and manufacturers have reacted angrily. Auckland Council has ordered an independent review of the automation project on implementation.
Gibson wouldn't reveal the cost of the automation project for commercial reasons, but said it was "way, way, way lower" than industry speculation of north of $400m.
He said variations in productivity were to be expected with such a project.
"That's how you test the system and we always said it takes six months at least to fine-tune but now we are getting ready for full terminal roll out and the start of pavement remediation in early April."
To the Herald's suggestion that the results summary read like a list of excuses and that other ports and sectors had also experienced tough 2021 half years, Gibson said the port was not making excuses.
"Covid impacted on us significantly. A real issue was around the number of bodies working here."
Following the death of a stevedore in a port accident in August, in an agreement with the workforce the hours per worked had been reduced. That move had reduced the number of staff hours available per week by 1100-1200, Gibson said.
The impact of Covid precaution measures and having to compete with the construction industry for labour added to the constraints, he said.
"But we are on top of it now. We've got our allocated number of crane drivers (we needed) to increase and also straddle drivers. We're still working on (recruiting more) lashers but that's an easier problem.
"We are expecting to get back to fixed berthing windows for services that can operate on fixed windows at the end of April. We will allocate service slots that can do this and we will be manned up to make sure cranes are working and back to much better crane services."
Not all shipping services could take up the return of fixed berthing times. Services like that serving the west coast of America was one example with 46 ships currently waiting outside Los Angeles ports.
No container ships were this week waiting to be unloaded at Auckland. Since October container ships had been waiting up to 14 days to unload.
The Auckland port has eight large cranes but has only been operating three during the day and two at night.
Gibson said six cranes would be operating by late April and full automation would go live in June or early July.
The half-year accounts show employee restructuring costs rose from $188,000 in the previous six months to $809,000.
Gibson said that was due to around 20 redundancies of mainly corporate staff due to downturns in car and container volumes.
No stevedores had been made redundant, he said.
The ship congestion outlook was brighter with the difference between estimated arrival times and actual times, based on a four-week average, down to 1.8 days from 9.4 days.