United Arab Shipping Co has confirmed its interest in ships of up to 18,000 teu because of the huge cost advantages that vessels of that capacity can produce.
The line is in contact with shipyards about another fleet upgrade after recently completing delivery of a series of nine 13,500 teu vessels ordered in 2008.
Those ships have proved so economical to run compared with older tonnage in the fleet that UASC is now exploring a further round of ordering.
'We are looking at ships from 13,000 teu up to 18,000 teu,' UASC president and chief executive Jorn Hinge told Lloyd's List, following reports that the line had approached a number of shipbuilders in China, South Korea and Japan.
UASC has been able to reduce fleet network costs by around $200m following the arrival of its 13,500 teu ships and the scrapping of older tonnage, but the next generation of ships would be even more efficient as a result of technological advances in the intervening years, said Mr Hinge.
Prices have also fallen by more than a third since UASC and other carriers ordered 13,000 teu and 14,000 teu ships prior to the global financial crisis and recession.
Mr. Hinge said no decision had been taken about design specifications and whether, for example, one or two engines were preferable for ultra-large containerships.
That would depend in part on the technical proposals and prices quoted by the shipyards, he said.
Maersk has chosen a twin-propulsion system for its 18,000 teu ships that will start to enter service later this year, but other ships of 12,000 teu or more are single-engined.
That is the case for the 16,000 teu CMA CGM Marco Polo, currently the world's biggest containership in terms of carrying capacity, which entered service a few weeks ago.
Financing is another issue still to be addressed, and in the absence of German KG finance, Mr. Hinge said alternatives included a mixture of traditional bank financing, Middle East funds and leasing arrangements.
Defending the decision by a line the size of UASC to consider ordering some of the biggest ships in the world, Mr. Hinge said its core market was the Middle East, which is also served by every carrier with a presence in the Asia-Europe trades.
Only by operating ships of comparable size and efficiency to those of the biggest lines in the business could UASC expect to retain its customer base. 'If UASC wants to be competitive in our home market, we have to have the same kind of ships,' said Mr. Hinge.
Until the arrival of the nine 13,500 teu ships, the largest UASC operated were 7,000 teu. They were delivered in 2008.
UASC has a reputation for waiting too long to place orders, as happened five years ago when it was one of the last to contract big boxships before the banking crisis brought new building interest to a standstill.
This time, UASC could be among the first to return to the market and take advantage of much lower prices.
The line hopes to move forward with the project in the second quarter of the year.