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Special Feature: Air Cargo

Accurate information, timing are everything when a shipment’s value depends on its freshness

By Melissa Wood
July 05, 2011

Not unlike the fishermen who first raised their cargo from uncertain seas, those depending on air transportation for fresh seafood live and die by the weather.

“The wintertime is probably my most stressful time of year because I have so much product that’s being bumped,” says John Sands, director of fresh purchasing for Supreme Lobster & Seafood Co. in Las Vegas, which distributes fresh seafood to many of the city’s hopping hotels and restaurants.

The ability to serve fresh seafood — Maine lobster, Alaska salmon, Dover sole, Spanish shrimp — in a city surrounded by mountains in the Mojave Desert is not a miracle but an expectation, and air cargo makes this possible. Despite challenges such as increasing fuel charges, those in the cargo industry report growing demand and in response offer up-to-date technology and services to help their customers’ shipments reach their destinations safely and on time.

“When I first moved here, there was probably a small handful of restaurants that were dedicated to serving fresh seafood,” remembers Sands, who says that the introduction of wide-bodied jets in the early 1980s created a global market for fresh seafood. On a random Tuesday in May, for example, Sands had 22 air bills — 4 tons of fresh seafood — that had to be picked up from various airlines.

“Now we have so many chefs that have moved out here, especially from the East Coast, and chefs from Europe, and they expect the freshest product they can get their hands on,” says Sands.

The only time he can recall when a delay was accepted by those chefs was on 9/11 and its aftermath, when they knew that the planes were not in the air.

“They don’t want to hear that the plane is late or that the pilot had to take on extra fuel because of a storm and the product got taken off [the plane] in Denver and will be here in three hours,” says Sands. “That’s not in their vocabulary.”

Keeping it fresh

When you’re transporting fresh seafood, a misplaced package, weather delay or other glitch can quickly lead to major problems. Recently, when a box of lobsters went missing, those lobsters weren’t doing so well when they were found five days later, says Sands.

Wally Devereaux, director of sales and marketing for Southwest Airlines Cargo in Dallas, says that in most cases the company offers tender time requirements (the latest a shipment can be dropped off before a flight) of 30 minutes and that they typically retrieve shipments within 30 minutes of the flight’s landing. The company has a number of facilities with coolers that can be used to store seafood while in transit, and in most cases Southwest employees work on freight shipments around the system.

“When it comes to moving perishables we’re certainly concentrating on getting them to their destinations as quickly as possible,” says Devereaux.

Those in the air cargo business have a unique perspective of the seafood business; their shipments indicate trends in fresh product and who wants it. With a bird’s-eye view of the industry from 3,400 flights a day to 71 cargo markets in the Lower 48, Devereaux has seen an upward trend in seafood air cargo shipments — in both volume and revenue. Some of Southwest’s growing source markets include the expected, such as Boston and Seattle, but also Salt Lake City for trout and Detroit for perch. Historically the airline has also carried a lot of fresh crab out of Houston and New Orleans, an industry crippled by the Gulf oil spill last year.

“We have seen that business improve quite a bit so that’s encouraging to see,” says Devereaux.

Joe O’Neill, president of Peninsula of Boston, a provider of transferring and holding services for fresh seafood shipped via air cargo, notes that while salmon and halibut remain the strongest species coming into the Northeast and lobster one of the strongest going out, he sees a variety of unique species becoming more popular in restaurants and specialty food stores.

As the use of air cargo has grown, the technology around it has grown increasingly sophisticated, says O’Neill. Some of the Unit Load Devices (ULDs) used for packaging are now better insulated and provide active temperature-control systems. In response to the Transportation Security Administration’s mandate last August that 100 percent of cargo shipped on passenger aircraft originating in the United States be screened, Peninsula also has the ability to screen its seafood air cargo in a temperature-controlled environment.

Weather-dependent

Just like the glamorous city and resort destinations of fresh seafood, ports that supply it have also seen a change in their industry thanks to air cargo. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Alaska, the source of wild salmon that is a favorite worldwide.

Following a robust season opener for Copper River salmon on May 16, the celebration continued as the first load made its way from the dock and tenders to the air. Joe Samudovsky, director for cargo sales for Alaska Airlines, was on the flight that brought in the first batch of salmon to Seattle, where the pilot ceremoniously carried a salmon from the plane down a red carpet, and three city chefs competed in a Copper River cook-off.

“To be able to see the cooperation that exists to get the salmon to market as soon as possible and as safely as possible, it’s like watching a symphony being conducted,” says Samudovsky.

Fresh seafood is leaving Alaska during all seasons, whether it’s crab, halibut, cod or geoduck. Samudovsky says that higher fuel prices have put pressure on that supply chain, from the fishermen who need fuel for their vessels to the airlines, which have increased their fuel surcharges as prices rise.

While the airline can’t control factors such as the weather and fuel prices, Samudovsky says it has been able to focus on training its employees on cold-chain handling and providing timely and accurate information about shipments to their customers from a dedicated seafood information desk.

Information is also king at PeriShip, which specializes in providing logistical and customer service support in the shipment of seafood and other fresh goods. When deadly tornadoes tore through Joplin, Mo., in May, PeriShip employees had already been tracking the storm system from giant monitors at the company’s operation center in Branford, Conn.

“We were telling people to be aware that there is this weather pattern that is developing that could create delays in the middle of the country,” says Luciano Morra, PeriShip’s president.

Morra, who started the company on the eve of 9/11, says it has grown steadily in the last 10 years because of its understanding of the shipment’s secondary value — for example, how important it is for a salesperson trying to forge a new relationship with a restaurant buyer or chef to have a shipment arrive on time.

“If you’re a chef in New York City and you are waiting for your shipment of scallops and something happened to it in transit, you don’t want to find out at 4 or 5 [o’clock],” says Morra.

Though winter storms have abated, with the arrival of summer, hurricane season brings another set of weather-related challenges — and potential opportunities. If a hurricane touches down in Miami, for instance, restaurants may actually want to increase their seafood shipment before the storm to account for an increase of diners driven out of their homes when their electricity falters.

“We had a few customers who saved thousands and thousands of dollars just by holding a shipment that would have gotten stuck in the system,” says Morra. “Our customers find the timely exchange of information to be the most important service we provide.”

Assistant editor Melissa Wood can be emailed at mwood@divcom.com

July 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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