The Response: Taking care of cargo - and each other

Soon after COVID-19 began spreading, cargo volumes across all U.S. ports began falling, and Virginia was no exception. As a result, we began focusing on several efforts to ensure continuity of operations, colleague safety, and preparation for what may come next.

The moment required immediate, tactical action to maintain the efficient flow of cargo, to keep the port team and its labor partners safe and to let the industry know Virginia is open for business. The first step was assembling the COVID-19 Response Team, an internal, cross-divisional group that met weekly; it was this team that guided the operation through the pandemic.
There were multiple priorities that we addressed in parallel. We began controlling costs and opening regular communication channels with customers and cargo owners. We worked in close collaboration with our labor partner, the International Longshoremen’s Association, to ensure a safe workplace and consistent cargo flow. And we began planning for recovery.
The response team made recommendations on maintaining individual safety as the virus spread. It developed a regular internal-and-external communications plan and made daily operational adjustments to maintain cargo flow and efficiency. As colleagues began working from home, the response team made sure the necessary technical support was in place; it assessed the virus’s short- and long-term impact on business; ensured financial stability; and kept several, large infrastructure projects moving forward.

The details were also addressed by listening, collaborating and anticipating next steps. From obtaining face masks, sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer for colleagues to answering questions on health benefits, the response team took action.

Members of the port’s sales team spoke with customers to gauge their needs and to better understand their challenges. This communication led to the development of our COVID-19 Critical Cargo Initiative, which identified critical import cargo moving across Virginia needed in the effort to fight the virus. When these containers arrived, we allocated the equipment and personnel assets needed to get the container moving to its destination as fast as possible.

We worked with our labor partners to implement a temperature screening process for operations-related personnel entering Virginia International Gateway and Norfolk International Terminals, prohibited visitors and took steps to ensure social distancing in the workplace. Common areas, work stations, and shared equipment were sanitized by a commercial cleaning firm.
Early on, we realized volumes were not going to recover quickly, so we began controlling costs. We reduced gate hours, eliminated weekend operations, froze salaries, and reviewed discretionary spending and project costs without lay-offs or furloughs. With VIG’s expansion complete and the work at NIT nearing its finish, we were able to close PMT to container traffic. This allowed us to move the remaining container volume at PMT to our bigger, more modern terminals and greatly reduce operational costs.
The day we closed PMT to container operations, we signed a contract with Norwegian Cruise Line to provide berth space at PMT for three of its ships. This move helped to offset some of the losses brought about by reduced volume. For more than two months, PMT was a temporary home to the cruise vessels Bliss, Encore and Spirit.

Critical to our success during the peak of the virus was our continual communication both internally and externally. Through continual engagement with our ocean-carrier customers and cargo owners, we were able to right-size daily operational needs, which helped to reduce waste. In conjunction, we communicated the moves we were making within the operation to help customers, partners and stakeholders plan and better understand our planning process.

We also began preparing for recovery. To that effort we accelerated the maintenance cycles of some equipment, tested systems to ensure efficiency, and used this opportunity to focus on completing the NIT expansion project on time and on-budget.
The overall result of our effort was no lost workdays as a result of the virus: we maintained the safe, efficient movement of cargo without incident or injury. Further, our team and terminals are ready for recovery and we now have the experience of executing our mission of moving cargo and being responsible to our customers in the most challenging business environment.
World-class readiness equals success under the most adverse conditions.