NEPTUNE Orient Lines (NOL), which recently ordered four 4,400 TEU (20 ft equivalent unit) vessels from South Korea for a total of US$280 million, may order more vessels if the market improves, says a NOL executive. NOL liner division director Ong Choo Kiat said the market was expected to improve by 1995, when NOL takes delivery of its new vessels being built at Samsung Heavy Industries. ''Our fleet, which is now five or six years old, will become younger with the new delivery reducing the average vessels' ages to three or four years,'' he said, adding that NOL was committed to a continuing fleet renewal programme. Mr Ong said the new vessels, which would be placed either on the North America or European trade, would replace older, smaller ships, although the line had not yet decided which ships to phase out. He predicted that this year's business would be better than last year by a ''small margin''. In the liner business, Mr Ong said the service to North America was not as strong as expected, but he felt it had rationalised with the Transpacific Stabilisation Agreement (TSA) adjusting rates to market demand and reducing undercutting. In the past five months, container business had improved over last year in terms of volume, he added. Mr Ong said: ''Nowadays, when we talk about the container business we are not talking about purely ocean transport from point A to point B. We are talking about total transportation.'' He admitted that shipping had become more sophisticated with more carriers being linked to ports through electronic data interchange (EDI) and the use of computers for tracking of cargo. ''I personally believe that in the container liner business, the entry barrier is going to be so high that at the end of the day, there will only be a few major operators providing services,'' he said. He predicted that in the long-term, smaller operators would be absorbed and a few mega-carriers would provide global services. ''Conferences will become a little bit out-of-date and we will see them only as a talking agreement,'' he said. ''We will see shipping companies sit down, exchange views but not use conference rates. They will rather use any rate they decide.'' He noted that even now there were alliances between major shipping lines indicating that rationalisation was taking place. Meanwhile, NOL has announced that it has entered into a contract to acquire 2000 general purpose FEU (40 ft equivalent units), costing about US$7 million. The containers, which will be manufactured by Amalgamated Containers in Malaysia, are expected to be delivered between September this year and June next year. The line NOL also has committed to contracts for 5000 TEUs with Taiwan, China and Thailand, with delivery set for late this year and early next year.