What are the Main Port Operations?

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Container terminal in port in Hamburg

Seaports are a vital link between the global supply chain and international trade, handling up to 90 percent of the world’s freight. As a matter of fact, the shipping industry cannot work without those transportation hubs that ensure a smooth transition of vessels, goods, and people across the world. Ports terminals handle various activities, depending on their location, purpose, size, water depth, and the kinds of ships that they accommodate. Let’s have an overview of the main port operations and the different entities that manage them.

What are the main operational activities performed in a port?

Seaports are strategically built at the edge of navigable water bodies, such as oceans, seas, lakes, or rivers, as well as artificial waterways like the Panama Canal or Suez Canal. Ports have been developed to accommodate a wide range of ships of all kinds: cargo vessels, cruise, and other passenger ships, fishing boats, ferries, barges, recreational watercraft, and even military vessels. 

A seaport terminal's core activities

Container terminal in shanghai with lots of port operations

Multiple activities take place at the ports terminal, depending on:

  • the purpose for which the port is being used,
  • the characteristics of the ships (for passengers/goods only or both),
  • the types of products (single or multiple);
  • the type of conditioning: containerized, vehicles (automobiles, trucks) RO/RO, dry bulk cargo (sugar, coal, food grain), liquid bulk cargo (petroleum, fuels, chemicals), breakbulk cargo (steel coils, timber, pipes, large machinery).


A seaport may be divided into various terminals that are made to handle a specific type of cargo, for example, container terminal, bulk cargo terminal, etc. Here are the main port operations that take place in those terminals:

  • cargo loading and discharging;
  • passengers embarkation at departure and disembarkation upon arrival, along with ancillary services (luggage handling, refreshment point, eateries, etc.);
  • arrival and departure of ships facilitation (pilotage, tugging, mooring, berthing);
  • temporary cargo storage on the yard to maintain regular stocking;
  • cargo staging until loading on the ship or transfer to overland means of land transportation (trucks, rail, barges for fluvial transport, pipelines, etc.).


Apart from operational tasks, ports have administrative functions:

  • control of goods (especially dangerous, hazardous, or harmful goods), documents, and people (customs, immigration, health, trade);
  • environmental and security control;
  • control of the traffic flow entering and leaving the port.
  • In the largest seaports, teams can also perform additional services:
  • stuffing/unstuffing containers;
  • sorting and consolidating cargoes;
  • packing, wrapping, labeling, weighting cargoes;
  • industrial activities.


Seaports may be connected to dry ports via road or railway since these domestic terminals are not located near the coastline. Created for regions that cannot directly access seaports, to ease trade for remote importers or exporters, dry ports have similar functions as seaports. They play a key role in multimodal logistics for transporting cargo to inland destinations and help to decrease congestion at nearby seaports. They can be used as buffers in supply chains thanks to vast storage space.

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Who is responsible for the main port operations ?

Port authority

Ports are governed either by governmental, semi-governmental public institutions, or local public entities. Port authorities are in charge of:

  • constructing and maintaining the infrastructure (dock and other facilities);
  • setting rules regarding the port’s overall organization;
  • ensuring the safety of goods, cargoes, passengers, as well as visitors and people working at the port;
  • controlling navigation within the limits of the area;
  • regulating prices;
  • communicating relevant information to the ship’s crew and all other parties;
  • protecting the marine environment;
  • monitoring sea transportation and managing vessel traffic;


Port authorities do not necessarily involve directly in terminal operations. In some countries, the law even prohibits a port authority from providing handling services in the port area that it governs. The aim is to avoid conflict of interest issues. However, some port authorities acquire shares in the terminal operating company to participate in the future profits of the terminal and get complete information on the financial data of the operator. These figures are particularly useful when the latter pays concession fees of twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) fees to the port authority, which hence has better visibility of its income.

Port operator

A port is run by a state-owned or private terminal operator who contracts with the port authority, which acts as a landlord, to lease the facilities, usually for 10 to 30 years. Both parties agree on the list of activities that are insured by this company, and the minimum level of productivity required. Maritime terminals are often managed under a concession.


The Port operator has a Port Operations Manager or Executive who:

  • invests in handling equipment (lift machinery such as gantry cranes for quays and yards, buckets, tug boats, conveyor belts, bulldozers, straddle carriers,);
  • hires operating personnel like dockworkers and administrative staff and trains them according to the new standards of modern ports;
  • negotiates with ocean carriers to ensure the loading/offloading of cargoes of all kinds;
  • allocates human, material, and technical resources within the port;
  • elaborate ship loading and discharge plans;
  • oversee daily, weekly, and monthly … planning for the berth, yard, and stowage;
  • monitors the port expenditure and performance (productivity users’ satisfaction, cost-effectiveness…) that are then compared to the agreed key performance indicators so as to identify discrepancies and take the appropriate corrective actions;
  • maintains the port equipment and infrastructure;
  • conducts security assessment of the facilities according to the requirements of the Coast Guard and port authorities;
  • take all necessary measures to reduce potential accident rates to a minimum;
  • at all times, ensures strict compliance with the procedures set by the port authorities and the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) policies in force.

What are the regulations pertaining to port operations?

Port authorities issue regulations (bylaws) that are taken from the recommendations or policies defined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) or the regulating body (for example the Federal Maritime Commission in the United States). The law varies from one country to another: Singapore has a port law, whereas Rotterdam applies a municipal law and Azerbaijan uses its Maritime Code. These port bylaws cover several aspects:

  • conduct of ships;
  • security;
  • documentation (commercial or passengers);
  • loading and discharging of goods;
  • protection of the environment (water and air pollution, waste management);
  • crisis and exceptional events management (accidents, fire, natural disasters, terrorist attacks…).

What are the major upcoming changes in port operations?

Port operations on a big port in Singapore

Port terminal operating companies face great new challenges to carry out operations efficiently and safely while maintaining a high level of efficiency and cutting costs:


  • The ever-growing international trade and increasing vessel sizes and numbers lead to huge volumes.
  • A greater responsiveness to meet market requirements (reduction of lead times, logistics costs, and improvement of service quality) is expected.
  • Environmental constraints must be dealt with in order to contribute to building a greener sea shipping industry and a sustainable economy on a global level.


Therefore, there is a need for a deep change in the global supply chain in general and port operations in particular. New technologies (5G internet connection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, internet of things, augmented reality, Big data, and other data-driven techniques) are called upon to play an increasingly important role in order to strengthening cooperation between the various branches of maritime transport and to increase the efficiency of the entire industry.

That is why some of the largest and busiest ports in the world have evolved into “smart ports” using digital tools and mechanized equipment to automate port operations. Very interesting initiatives can be observed in Europe (ports of Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp, Le Havre, Copenhagen Malmö, Valencia, Barcelona), but also in Asia (Singapore, Shanghai), or in the USA (Los Angeles). Here are some of the newly common solutions implemented in smart ports:


  • use of remote-controlled ship-to-shore cranes, automated guided vehicles, and gantry cranes for quick and safe handling ;
  • real-time information sharing between all stakeholders for smooth communication and optimized organization of port operations;
  • electronic document interchange for fast customs formalities and cargo release;
  • connected sensors for conditions (weather, wind, etc.) monitoring, potential sources of hazards control inside the port and in its surroundings, and air, water, and noise pollution measurement.


Sinay has developed a range of state-of-the-art solutions to support a transformation to more productive and greener ports. Its one-on-one workshop includes environmental modules dedicated to air/water quality, and logistics modules to calculate the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) to better plan operations (crewmen, equipment, dock…).

We can also speak about PCS. The port community system will be crucial in the future to help the supply chain to be more efficient and competitive. The main purpose of the PCS is to enable secure and intelligent operational data exchange and consolidation within the port network. The PCS will provide the port community with the necessary information to make decisions and allow better visibility of port operations.  

Conclusion about port operations

Within a large, dynamic logistics network that involves several players, seaports are not just a crossing point, but now stand out as integrated transport hubs and high-value-added platforms for international trade. Even if all countries are not at the same stage when it comes to digitalization, there is a clear trend towards a combination of physical operations with digital tools and processes. Smart ports are no longer the ideal future, but the reality.


Frequently Asked Questions About: Port Operations

A series of maritime procedures aimed to ensure the smooth transition of vessels and their containers from one terminal to another

Ship operations include managing the crew, creating dry-docking requirements; overseeing dry docking, operational maintenance, and the preparation of insurance claims. Ship operations must also be financially vigilant which include costs, flexibly adapt to the constantly changing requirements of the maritime sector, ensure the ship has enough oil and fuel for the entire journey, and maintain close ties with customers, master sailors, and seafarers.

A Smart Port is a digital port. A Smart Port is a more effective, more performant, and more economically competitive port. Not only that, but Smart Ports consider residents key stakeholders in their activities. They use real-time information, a collaborative management approach, and essentially provide more with less.

The main types of port operations include cargo handling, container operations, vessel loading and unloading, and providing services such as storage and repair facilities.

Port operations contribute significantly to the economy through job creation, trade facilitation, and the movement of goods and commodities. Ports are key players in global trade and play a vital role in ensuring the smooth flow of goods and services.

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