The Panama Canal, with its unique location at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, has had a far- reaching effect on world economic and commercial developments throughout most of this century. By providing a short, relatively inexpensive passageway between these two great bodies of water, the Canal has influenced world trade patterns, spurred growth in developed countries, and has been a primary impetus for economic expansion in many remote areas of the world. For example, a vessel laden with coal sailing from the east coast of the United States to Japan via the Panama Canal saves about 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) versus the shortest alternative all-water route, and for a vessel laden with bananas sailing from Ecuador to Europe the distance saved is about 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles).
By far, most of the traffic through the Canal moves between the east coast of the United States and the Far East, while movements between Europe and the west coast of the United States and Canada comprise the second major trade route at the waterway. Other regions and countries, however, such as the neighboring countries of Central and South America, are proportionately more dependent on this vital artery to promote their economic development and expand trade.
Since the Canal first opened on August 15, 1914, the waterway has provided quality transit service to more than 815,000 vessels. Despite the increase in the number and size of transiting vessels in recent years, the total average time spent by a vessel at the Panama Canal still remains at slightly less than 24 hours. This remarkable level of performance can be attributed to the team of professionals trained to provide rapid transit service and to the timely implementation of improvements designed to interface with traffic demand. Some $10 million dollars is spent each year on training programs to prepare Panamanians for the operation and maintenance of the Canal. Today, Panamanians comprise more than 95 percent of the Canal’s seasoned work force, and occupy positions in high-skill areas vital to the Canal organization.
Of the thousands of vessels transiting the Canal each year, about 30 percent of the total oceangoing transits are by PANAMAX- size vessels, the largest vessels the waterway can accommodate. An optional transit reservation system is available upon request to provide a guaranteed priority transit. The nature of improvements to the Canal keenly reflect the ever increasing role of PANAMAX vessels in the movement of world commerce. Use of the all-water route through the Panama Canal will continue to be an important, cost-effective transportation mode for a significant segment of world trade.