Global insight

At last, the sweet smell of air cargo success

At last, the sweet smell of air cargo success

RED ROSES and a surge in e-commerce are providing a timely sweet bouquet of success for the lacklustre air cargo industry, writes Nigel Tomkins.

With general cargo volumes wilting everywhere across the world, the arrival of seasonal national and international ‘love events’ – such as Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day and Women’s Day in Russia – means temperature-controlled airfreight services are suddenly at a premium.

Air cargo industry players reveal that red roses are the most in-demand flower this year, followed by pompoms, chrysanthemums and carnations, and initial figures issued by IAG Cargo show that cut-flower volumes destined for the USA alone have increased by more than 50 per cent on last year’s season.

This upswing also reflects a wider trend: increased e-commerce capabilities which are now enabling buyers, particularly in the USA, to source their flowers directly from farmers, predominantly those in East Africa and in South America.

Buying directly from them means florists can order exactly what they require more quickly and at reduced cost, cutting out the middlemen, such as wholesalers and auction houses. “They’re able to get what they need much quicker, owing to better connections and to the boom in e-commerce. It’s great to connect local growers and help bring their products to market,” says David Shepherd, head of commercial at IAG Cargo.

“Our hubs at London Heathrow and Madrid are well equipped for the transportation and handling of these perishable goods, ensuring that they’re kept fresh and arrive in time for full bloom,” he adds. The traditional rose is the most popular flower shipped on IAG Cargo flights, with 95 per cent of them red, Shepherd reveals.

At last, the sweet smell of air cargo successAt last, the sweet smell of air cargo success

With the surge in demand, it is no surprise that February has become a critical month for Kenyan and South American flower growers as the peak-season period for cut-flower transportation generally starts in the last two weeks of January and ends after February.

Lufthansa Cargo is transporting more than 1,500 tonnes of blooming roses this year – the equivalent of 40 million roses or the capacity of 16 MD-11 freighter flights. The German carrier always adds special charters to its regular flights schedule in February – this year with additional services from Quito and Nairobi to Frankfurt – to meet the high demand on Valentine’s Day.

Express carrier UPS is expecting to ship more than 100 million flowers over the period – enough to fill 70 B767 freighters – to love-birds around the USA. Many of the roses and tropical flowers imported into the USA originate from Latin American countries, mainly Colombia and Ecuador.

“Every year we increase our operational resources to expedite incoming flower shipments,” admits Domingo Mendez, air cargo manager at UPS. “That’s 560,000 boxes of flowers this year, more than eight million dozen roses.”

To airfreight all those delicate blooms, UPS is reportedly adding up to 40 additional temperature-controlled flights to its network. At the integrator’s Latin America Miami hub, thousands of boxes of cut flowers are kept fresh in a refrigerated warehouse the size of a football pitch, from where they are inspected and sorted for transportation to their final destination.

While most Latin American flower exports come from Colombia and Ecuador, other South American countries – including Peru, Costa Rica and Guatemala – also produce them in smaller quantities. Main destinations include Miami, Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Russia.

Growing flowers is a risky business, one that is open to sudden weather or climate mishaps and success in sustainable flower-farming requires a continuous upwards trend. Last year the quantity of Kenya’s cut flowers exported in February jumped nine per cent to 12.65 tonnes from 11.51 in the same month in 2014. About 38 per cent of all cut flowers produced in Kenya are exported to the European Union.

It’s not all wine and roses as Valentine’s Day approaches though. Last year, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agriculture specialists at Los Angeles International Airport processed 37 million flower stems – and intercepted 2,870 unwanted pests.

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