For companies shipping West Coast fruits and vegetables by air to high-end supermarkets and restaurants in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, one rule supersedes all others: Never break the cold chain.
If fresh strawberries from Oxnard bound for Munich or Tokyo or Hong Kong sit in the sun for as few as 15 minutes -- whether on a truck bound for Los Angeles International Airport or on the tarmac awaiting a 15-hour flight -- they could be ruined. Every berry must be kept cold at all points in the logistics chain, or stakeholders will lose out on profit.
"It must work like a Swiss watch," said Veli Polat, Lufthansa Cargo's regional director for the Western United States, Mexico and Central America. "It's about reliability and on-time service."
At Lufthansa, Germany's national airline, fresh California produce not only flies three times weekly from Los Angeles to Europe on all-cargo Boeing 777s, but goes in the belly of just about every passenger flight from Los Angeles -- one a day to Munich and either one or two per day to Frankfurt, depending on the season.
On a full flight, chilled fruits and vegetables can weigh as much as all the passenger bags combined: a 747 bound for Frankfurt might have 20,000 pounds of luggage and roughly 25,000 pounds of cargo, much of it relatively high-value fruits and vegetables, like asparagus, cherries, lettuce and berries.
Shipping produce by air is mostly a niche business, worth about $440 million annually to California's economy, according to international trade economist Jock O'Connell. But for major international airlines operating out of Los Angeles, shipping produce is a key business, especially in the spring and summer, when exports peak.
Most major international airlines at LAX transport produce, allowing markets abroad to sell fresh fruits and vegetables as quickly as 48 hours after they're picked in places
like Watsonville and Santa Maria. According to airport data, fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts account for 15 percent of the total cargo shipments by weight at LAX.
Because shipping by air is far pricier by sea, some general rules apply: Fruits and vegetables sent on flights should be unavailable abroad, must be able to fetch high prices at markets and must be brittle enough that they cannot be sent by ship. Oranges, for example, are a better candidate for ships because they're heavy, relatively cheap and hold up well at sea.
Airline officials say profits on fruits and vegetables are low (Lufthansa Cargo makes "a few cents" on the dollar, Polat said), but fresh produce can help airlines make extra money -- perhaps enough to prop up an otherwise marginal route. Other cargo such as turbines, solar panels, live animals, clothing and even automobiles generally provide higher margins, airline executives say.
"If our flight is full with passengers, then obviously additional cargo revenue can make it more profitable," said Masaru F. Uchida, director of cargo planning and sales cargo in the Americas for Japan Airlines. "Or, if the passenger load is not so full but we're able to get a sufficient amount of cargo on the flight, the revenue from cargo can make the flight profitable. But cargo just by itself cannot be the main revenue on that flight."
From Farm to Market
Though the airline flies the freight, another company usually handles much of the rest -- packing items for shipment, checking to see they're safe and secure, and ensuring they're packed with ice.
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