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Spotlight: Air cargo

Seafood a priority for some airlines, logistics providers

Air cargo shipments play an important role in the
    seafood supply chain. - Photo courtesy of Alaska Air Cargo
By Lauren Kramer
August 01, 2009

Every day, seafood is transported across the country, much of it by air. As seafood shipments have increased over the last two decades, air cargo personnel have become more adept at handling the perishable protein and ensuring minimal shrinkage occurs during transit.

"We transport about 15 million pounds of fresh seafood each year," says Joe Sprague, VP of cargo at Alaska Airlines. "That's about 10 percent of the 150 million pounds of air freight and mail we move."

Moving seafood occupies a significant chunk of business for Alaska, which primarily ships salmon, but also flies fresh halibut, live crab, cod and geoducks, a market out of Ketchikan that has exploded in the past two years. "It's been encouraging for us to see other fresh seafood products be discovered, and for us to join the supply chain for these products," Sprague says.

In the past two years, the company implemented a cold-chain training program for its cargo agents, something the company created in partnership with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "We're the first passenger airline that ships cargo to offer formal cold training to our cargo agents," Sprague says. "It teaches them about the optimal temperature needed to keep the fish fresh and what they can do to help maintain that freshness."

The key to Alaska's cargo program is to keep the seafood moving. "We have flight lengths that aren't all that long, and we ensure that when the seafood cargo is stationary it is kept in coolers and freezers in all our locations," says Sprague. "We also work closely with our seafood-shipping customers, so that they drop cargo off from their processing plants as close as possible to departure time. We try to keep the cold chain in an efficient, fluid motion so that cargo doesn't get backed up. It's a carefully choreographed dance between us, the processors and their customers or couriers at the destination."

Federal Express, another major player in the movement of seafood via air cargo, has partnered with PeriShip to ensure perishables reach their destination on time and in mint condition.

Seafood constitutes 60 percent of Periship's business. Over the past eight years, the logistics provider has built a process that allows it to proactively manage perishable 
shipments as they transit through the Federal Express system.

"We handle pre and post transactions on behalf of FedEx, providing an exclusive level of support for shippers but in such a way that our services are transparent to them," says Fred Volk, Periship's director of operations.

"We'll help the customer find a proper packaging system, and when he's ready to ship, we'll monitor variables like weather and transportation equipment, exchanging internal information with FedEx around the clock. If there are problems, we resolve them by working with FedEx and giving the customer frequent updates."

When one customer's seafood was delayed on a flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Memphis, Tenn., due to a technical issue, "we were able to intercept the boxes at the hub and expedite them to the customer the same day by placing them on a later flight," says Volk. "If not for us, FedEx would have had to wait for the customer to call them and find out what was going on, because they don't have anyone else proactively identifying the exceptions."

The majority of Periship's seafood shipments are salmon, Maine lobsters, stone crab claws from Florida, grouper, tuna and Alaska king crab. But seafood cargo shipments have dropped 30 percent year-over-year, says Volk. "I attribute that decrease mostly to less wholesale demand for seafood," he says.

D e l ays are always a possibility with air cargo. But they're infrequent on Alaska Airlines, says Sprague, a company that has one of the best on-time performances in the industry, and boasts the second-youngest fleet of planes, he adds.

Seafood constitutes close to 10 percent of Southwest Airlines' cargo business as well, according to Wally Devereaux, Southwest's director of cargo sales and marketing.

Tuna and live crabs make up the majority of shipments, and are transported in passenger planes since Southwest doesn't have dedicated cargo planes. Product is kept in coolers at its origin stations, transfer cities and arrival ports. Claims for damages to seafood shipments are extremely low, he adds. Year-to-date, Southwest has received claims on less than 1 percent of the total seafood shipments the company has handled.

Southwest recently added Commodity Express service, which gives processors a 100 percent money-back guarantee that their shipment will be transported on the next available departure.

"The advantages are shorter time to market, flight-specific service and the guarantee," says Devereaux. "Our standard perishable commodity service is not flight- specific and does not guarantee a specific arrival time."

Cargo insurance is optional, with no industry standard in place. Sprague says that in the rare instance a technical problem arises and something under Alaska Airlines' control goes wrong and the cargo is damaged as a result, the airline accepts responsibility.

"In 2008 we paid out zero claims for seafood losses," he says. "That hasn't always been the case, but it was a significant point of progress for us."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia




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