Perishables underpin airfreight movements in the US and airports know they must give this time–critical freight first class service or lose the traffic it commands.

Speed is the bottom-line driver of pricey air transportation but when perishable cargoes are involved, airports know they must give time–critical freight first class service or lose the traffic and the premium revenue it commands. Indeed, perishables can be the backbone of the air cargo business, but lifecycles and deadlines of these commodities cannot be stretched, or the values reclaimed by delays.

Not only airlines but airports have to be aggressive yet agile in shipping and handling perishables. Inefficiencies can wreak havoc with cargo yields. Conversely, an operationally smooth airport can contribute to a carrier’s cargo profitability, particularly on international perishable traffic.

KLM Cargo 747-400F at Miami International Airport

Miami International Airport (MIA) - Goliath Among Air Perishable Imports

With its advantageous geographical location, experience and expertise, Miami International Airport (MIA) ranked first among US airports for international air freight and seventh among world airports. Some 99 airlines operate at MIA including 56 passenger or belly cargo airlines and 43 freighter airlines. “The split between belly and freighter service at MIA is quite unique compared with other airports,” says Jimmy Nares, section chief, aviation marketing, Miami Dade Aviation Department. “More than 80% is carried by freighters and less than 20% is belly cargo.” It’s the reverse at many airports.

However, MIA, as the “main entry point for air perishables in the US, accounts for approximately two-thirds or 67% for all US air perishables imports,” he adds, noting that tenants of MIA’s cargo facilities (airlines and ground handlers) have a combination of 466,000 square feet of on-airport refrigerated cooler, more than any other US airport. Plus, the “logistics community” just off airport and the City of Doral have “significant” refrigeration capacity.

Jimmy Nares, section chief, aviation marketing, Miami Dade Aviation Department.

MIA’s five busiest airlines in 2022, measured by tonnage landed, were all freighters led by Atlas Air Freight (with a total 434,345 US tons) followed by UPS, Tampa Cargo Airlines, LATAM Airlines Group and Amerijet International, according to Nares. The top five markets for perishables imports include Colombia for flowers, Chile for seafood and salmon, Ecuador for flowers, Peru for asparagus and Costa Rica for flowers and seafood.

MIA is gearing up for more growth. Nares told the American Journal of Transportation in an exclusive interview that Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners recently adopted a capital improvement program, funding up to $6.8 billion of airport wide modernization over the next five to 15 years. “Cargo buildings at MIA will be expanded, modernized or demolished, runways will be expanded, and parking stands will be added accessing cargo facilities.

Additionally, MIA is working with a private sector concern to build a “vertically integrated cargo community—multi-leveled –that is expected to double” the airport’s cargo capacity. No timetable has been established for completion.

So far in 2023, MIA has added new service from San Salvador via Volaris El Salvador Airlines, Norse Atlantic Airways linking Miami with London, Oslo, Paris, and Berlin and, later this year, with Porter Airlines that serves Toronto. Says Nares: “These airlines will undoubtedly transport additional perishable belly cargoes.” Meantime, he adds, the Miami airport has “unparalleled connectivity to the Latin American and Caribbean region with direct service to approximately 80 markets with almost 1300 weekly departures.”

A major perishables shipper, Florida Beauty Flora Transportation, which has 300,000 square feet of cooler facilities on premises five minutes from the airport, says it has a “very good relationship with MIA—they are very cooperative,” according to General Manager Assaf Koubi. The 40-year-old firm which blankets Latin America, uses carriers serving the airport but also charters freighters to move “fruits, vegetables, flowers or anything temperature-controlled.” Florida Beauty has its own fleet of “state of the art refrigerated trucks, Koubi notes.

MIA accounts for approximately two-thirds or 67% for all US air perishables imports.

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) Look For Expansion Soon

PHL has always marched to its own drummer when it comes to air cargo, but the sixth largest US city is about to throttle forward with a deeper push into perishables. Jim Tyrrell, chief revenue officer, concedes PHL “continues to underperform compared to other major air cargo gateways.” While air export volume in PHL’s catchment is valued at $53 billion, over 90 percent of it moves through other airports in its six-state region. “Due to insufficient cargo infrastructure, PHL only handled 9 percent of the volume,” he told AJOT.

But PHL has a solution. Focus not just on physical capacity improvements but on technological advancement, operational procedures and management systems, Tyrrell and his team spelled out in a new Cargo Development Strategy report. “Identify short term opportunities that drive cargo within existing facilities while establishing relationships with key stakeholders.”

Jim Tyrrell, PHL

PHL is partnering with AFCO, an on-airport cargo facility development and management concern that operates Cargo Building C2, consolidating 40,000 square feet of contiguous space to increase its cargo handling capacity, relocate its current non-cargo tenants to an economy lot development, designate four aircraft parking spots for all cargo operations and install E-commerce facilitation capabilities. A former economy parking lot will be transformed into a 70,000 square foot aircraft support facility with direct airfield access as part of the AFCO partnership.

But PHL’s largest leap forward in its quest to build its cargo revenues, explains Tyrrell, is yet another venture with AFCO—development of a 150,000 square foot terminal with a cool port for pharmaceutical and perishables handling. The airport has long had a small but steady perishables business in its role as a hub for American Airlines with its 13 destinations next year plus belly freight lift via British Airways, Qatar, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Aer Lingus, United, Delta, and Southwest, plus UPS and Federal Express.

While fruits, vegetables and even lobsters are popular temperature-controlled cargoes moving through PHL, says Tyrrell. “Our biggest, potentially most profitable perishable commodities are pharmaceuticals. Philadelphia is the center of the largest pharma manufacturing complex in the US. The former Philadelphia Naval Yards is the new home of a giant science center with hundreds of start-up companies fed by the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.”

American Airlines announced in September wide-bodied belly-freight service between PHL and Rome, Venice, and Madrid to begin next year.

In 2022, PHL completed a 520,000 square foot aircraft parking ramp with five parking positions.

Longer term, PHL is planning a 136-acre expansion, according to its new Cargo Strategy. This would include a million square feet of air cargo facilities and landside infrastructure (parking and loading docks) plus five million square feet of expansion creating airfield connectivity for cargo operations. As part of the plan, 20 aircraft parking positions will be developed.

LAX, which is operated by Los Angeles World Airports, has more air freight capacity than all of the US’s Western half airports combined.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Streamlining Perishables Pickup, Delivery

Here is a stunning statistic: Los Angeles International Airport, LAX, operated by Los Angeles World Airports, LAWA, has more air freight capacity than all of the US’s Western half airports combined. And with its ability to serve Asia and Latin/South America along with its vast mix of wide-bodied passenger aircraft and full-freighter airlines, LAX commands a position as one of the nation’s big four international cargo gateways. (The others are Chicago O’Hare, New York’s John F. Kennedy International and Miami International Airport).

LAX has another big advantage for perishables shippers and consignees, a cargo representative of LAWA told AJOT – “recovery options,” adding, the most important advantage with perishables is recovery. If you have a mechanical (problem) and live fresh fish on the plane, it’s critical to know you have another flight to that same destination in a few hours. That’s what I call an ‘irreplaceable advantage’ and LAX has it. Frequencies and unique destinations. And no other airport in the West comes close to having a comparable mix of freighters and wide-bodied passenger aircraft.”

The largest perishables shipper at LAX is Commodity Forwarders, Inc. or CFI which is owned by the international logistics and forwarding firm of Kuehne & Nagel. “LAX understands perishables perfectly and the people who oversee day-to-day operations are very co-operative and flexible,” says a staffer who asked not to be identified. “There is a huge choice of airlines here working around the clock seven days a week so we can always get lift, Customs clearance and deliveries.

Commodity Forwarders in Los Angeles has a massive warehouse and cold storage facility several miles east of LAX. Cleverly branded as “Coolskies with TempEndure, the company has comparatively quick access to the airport and does not suffer the normal pickup and delivery delays that plague other large US airports. “Despite all the talk about Los Angeles traffic, our proximity to LAX streamlines our pickups and deliveries,” the CFI staffer says.

A large advantage LAX has over other West Coast airports is the substantial number of Asian transpacific widebodies and freighter aircraft that utilize LAX including but not limited to Korean Air Lines, Nippon Cargo, Asiana, JAL, ANA, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, EVA as well as Federal Express and DHL which buys space for perishables on Atlas Air 747 freighters.

LAX also has a strong flow of perishable traffic from Latin America, according to the airport’s cargo representative. “There’s been a large consolidation of airlines in Latin America, and we’ve seen a new freighter service from Avianca, flying out of Bogota which is now the biggest cargo airport in Latin America, bigger than the Brazilian airports of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo,” the representative says. Tampa Cargo, a freighter airline plus belly freight passenger carriers Aero México, Copa Airlines, LATAM, Volaris also serve LAX from as well as American, Delta and United and all carry perishable freight. Overall, LAX is served by 75 passenger airlines and more than 20 all-cargo carriers, although the exact number is blurred by ACMI carriers operating schedules on behalf of clients as well as the substantial market share by combination airlines operating both passenger and freighter aircraft.

Still, the Latin American cut flower market is dominated by Miami International Airport for reasons mainly of geography and tradition. “They can fly in there and then truck it out but LAX is certainly in the top five gateways for cut flowers,” says the LAWA cargo representative.

However, LAX receives high marks for its performance month to month and annually at a time when the air cargo market has been relatively flat following the COVID-19 pandemic. According to statistics from the Los Angeles Air Cargo Association, LAX currently ranks eighth among US airports and seaports in terms of border crossings. Total trade with the world in August stood at $9.45 billion. LAX’s exports year to date are $8.07 billion while imports for the same period are $11 billion. The airport’s trade increase this past August was 15.83%. That same month, China was LAX’s top-trade partner with $5.75 billion.

Boston Logan International Airport (Bos) Perishables Are A Traditional Traffic

As the gateway to New England, BOS has enjoyed a steady stream of import and export perishable cargoes, led by seafood, pharmaceuticals, and flowers and to a lesser degree, fruits, and vegetables. Despite its smaller footprint and in-city location, BOS ranks among the nation’s top 20 busiest airports and is known for its operational efficiency and global reach.

“We have two cargo warehouse buildings on the ramp and one, building 58, is mainly an American Airlines freight facility with British Airways and Level Airlines,” says Steve Mortell, general manager for Worldwide Flight Services at BOS. “Building 62 serves 12 airlines including Lufthansa, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific, Hawaiian Air, TAP Air Portugal, Qatar, LATAM, UPS and Swift Air. Overall, both warehouses cover about 80,000 square feet and have drive-in coolers. Building 62 also has a refrigerated trailer.”

Mortell says some 70% of BOS perishables are imported and 30% are exported. Live fish is imported daily from South America and Europe. Most perishables move on wide-bodied passenger jets. “We have no pure freighter service except for FedEx and UPS,” he adds.

However, BOS has a brisk trade in moving live lobsters to Asia, particularly during the holiday season, he notes. The crustaceans and other seafood move from Boston on Qatar, Cathay Pacific, and Korean Air Lines.

BOS has recently added two more airlines – Norse Atlantic Airways from Europe and COPA Air from Latin America, two aggressive belly cargo operators.

One longtime BOS live lobster shipper, Frank Yuen, vice president of Cargo Service Center, a general logistics firm, says air shipping the delicate perishables is a “24-hour, seven day a week business where we always have to standby because anything can happen.” He ships mainly to Asia and uses airlines operating out of Boston and JFK where he can get space on direct flights to his markets that are both swift and secure.

Yuen’s current carriers of choice range from Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, China Airlines to Taiwan, Air China, China Eastern and China Southern to mainland China and Emirates Air to Dubai. He says live Maine lobsters can live 40 hours during a temperature-controlled journey when packed in a gel and not dry ice.