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Keeping cool

As global appetite for fresh perishables continues to rise, operators are stepping up their investment in cool chain capabilities, aiming for improved visibility and quality standards. Ian Putzger reports

This spring the Cool Chain Association (CCA) embarked on a trial programme to improve visibility for perishables shipments. On trade lanes from Latin America and the US to Europe participants are tracking commodities like avocados and berries end to end, using temperature loggers in the shipments, sharing data to spot temperature excursions and pinch points. 


Individual operators track ambient temperatures of perishables in their custody, but they lack visibility of the other parts of the chain, notes Eric Mauroux, Director Verticals, Global Head of Perishables at Air France KLM Martinair Cargo (AF-KL-MP) and CCA Treasurer. This initiative brings the elements of the entire journey together and allows the community to identify problem areas and collaborate on finding solutions.


“Data is key,” he says. “Sharing data enables us to create value.”


Beyond recording ambient temperature, the trials experiment with different solutions. “Out of LA and Mexico we test different pieces of technology like thermal blankets or cold carts. We experiment with different elements and measure the impact on the overall cool chain,” says Mauroux.


Increasingly operators join hands to attain better visibility of perishables supply chains. The Holland Flower Alliance, an industry group formed with the backing of the Dutch government that includes KLM, Schiphol Airport and Flora Holland, which runs the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, established a link last year that allows tracking of shipments both by order number and air waybill number, so all parties along the chain can access shipment information.


On the carrier side Cathay Pacific and Delta Air Lines have been leading the charge to trial Bluetooth technology to track cargo in flight. Adding temperature probes would be a logical next step. Shawn Cole, Vice President of Delta Cargo, says that he intends to include sensors down the road to measure ambient conditions, but this is going to focus on pharmaceutical traffic in the initial stage.


Internet of Things technology is widely seen as a promising avenue for monitoring ambient conditions, especially as the sensors stay with the shipment from door to door. Still, so far, the perishables sector has been slow to embrace IoT monitoring. Besides practical issues like limited battery life and challenges getting equipment back along a fragmented chain, cost considerations have been fingered as the main obstacle.


The drive for better shipment data often goes hand in hand with efforts to measure performance and establish recognised metrics for this. According to Mauroux, AF-KL-MP is about to become the first airline to be certified by FlowerWatch, an organisation based in the Netherlands that defines its mission as to become ‘the world’s leading authority in bringing flower supply chains around the world up to par and in facilitating their continuous improvement’. Its primary measure is the ‘degree hour’, which is established by multiplying journey time with temperature.


“If you ship flowers from Nairobi to Amsterdam, the correct outcome is 300-degree hours, which results in one day of additional shelf life in comparison with our main competitors,” Mauroux says.


He thinks that the certification process should be extended to other commodities down the road. “Perishables need standards,” he comments, pointing to Fresh Forum, an industry event held by the Air Cargo France Association in January, where the majority of the supply chain actors present expressed a need for standardisation.


IATA certainly agrees on the need for standards on handling and moving perishables. In March the airline body unveiled its CEIV Fresh programme, which follows the CEIV schemes for pharmaceuticals and live animal transportation.


As with the other two programmes, the new scheme was spearheaded by industry players, in this case Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals (HACTL) and the handling arm of Cathay Pacific Cargo.


“We took a community approach to developing CEIV Fresh recognising that the successful shipment requires the alignment of many stakeholders. Shippers can have peace of mind knowing that every entity handling their goods is operating to the same standards,” commented Glyn Hughes, IATA Global Head of Cargo at the official launch of the programme.


Chris Connell, Senior Vice President North America of Commodity Forwarders, a subsidiary of Kuehne + Nagel, welcomes the initiative but points out that the associated cost is an issue. This is easier to justify in the pharma sector than with foodstuff, he notes.


He reckons that importers will play a crucial role in the adoption of CEIV Fresh. “I think some supermarkets will embrace it, some platforms will not. It has to come from everybody, but at the end of the day much hinges on retailers and food suppliers to restaurants,” he remarks.


Recent yield developments have not been conducive to spending on elements like CEIV. While the strong momentum on the demand side drove up general air freight yield over the past couple of years, the yield on perishables stagnated in 2018, as retailers face limits how far they can raise prices before consumers refrain from buying certain foods.


Overall, though, operators are investing more in their perishables capabilities, as this segment promises solid growth for years to come, and the sheer volume is impossible to ignore. Shawn McWhorter, President for the Americas of Nippon Cargo Airlines, notes that perishables account for 50-60 % of the Japanese carrier’s business from the US West Coast.


Brendan Harnett, CEO and Chairman of Flying Fresh Air Freight, Canada’s top perishable forwarder in last year’s IATA rankings, is bullish on exports for the next five years and beyond. He points to Canadian cherry production, which may double by 2024, given the number of new trees that have been planted.


With a share of 34%, fruit and vegetables constitute the largest segment of perishables moved by air. At AF-KL-MP, this accounts for 40% of perishables traffic, Mauroux reports.


This segment grew a relatively modest 2% last year, outpaced by flowers shipments, which went up 7%. Flowers make up 28% of AF-KL-MP’s perishables business, compared to a share of 20% in the global air cargo market. Seafood also makes up about 20% of global perishables air freight, having grown 5% in 2018.


Much recent activity has been driven by rapidly growing imports into China and India, which are expected to continue with the rising purchasing power of these countries’ consumers. This has produced some shifts in trade patterns. Growers in Latin America are increasingly looking to Asian markets for their exports, especially China. To meet this demand LATAM Cargo launched freighter flights to Chicago in February to connect with freighter departures of Cathay Pacific and Air China and carry Chilean salmon, cherries and other perishables to China.


Trade tensions have had some serious repercussions on supply chains. Canadian exporters of seafood, especially lobster, have enjoyed bumper demand from China, as tariffs on US lobster imports into the Asian country rose from 15-40%. The surge in lobster exports boosted throughput of Halifax Stanfield International Airport, which went up 8.5%.


“Our operation in Boston witnessed the sucking sound of Canada taking the live lobster business,” remarks Connell. Harnett expects an aggressive push by US exporters to recover lost ground once the stand-off between China and the US is resolved, but Connell reckons it will take some time for supply chains to shift. Some China business will likely remain north of the border, he says.


Halifax Airport is not preparing for a downturn. To accommodate the rising freighter activity on its patch the airport is investing in additional cargo apron space and a new freight facility.


Others are also stepping up their spend on perishables capabilities. Last summer, Worldwide Flight Services (WFS) signed an MoU to operate a seafood facility at Oslo Airport that will handle up to 250,000 tonnes of seafood a year. CAL Cargo Airlines doubled its presence at the Norwegian capital in March with a second weekly freighter rotation, aiming to carry 3,500 additional tonnes of seafood a year out of Norway.


Flying Fresh is expanding its footprint at its Vancouver base, adding office space as well as 2,000 ft2 of cooler space at the airport. Harnett is also planning to consolidate his company’s operations at Halifax in the planned new cargo facility at the airport. And he intends to add to Flying Fresh’s US presence, which currently consists of a small operation in Boston. This time his focus is on the West Coast.


Nippon Cargo’s McWhorter says that the establishment of a temperature-controlled facility at Dallas/Fort Worth has allowed NCA to go after perishables from Mexico, which are brought up by interline partners to feed the Japanese carrier’s three weekly flights out of the Texan gateway. The airport authority identified perishables flows from Latin America as a strategic commodity to target in order to develop intercontinental freighter traffic, and decided it needed a cooler facility.


“With this storage facility we can offer a good transit product that would not be possible without it,” McWhorter states.


Packaging is another element that is seeing ongoing investment.


“We switched to new packaging materials. This has produced a 20% improvement on flights over six hours,” reports Connell. “It’s not as costly as pharma solutions, but it’s better than the traditional bubble foil.”


Flying Fresh uses Tyvek covers on most of the products it ships. “It is quite effective,” says Harnett.


Tyvek covers also work for shipping frozen product with dry ice, but not with seafood, he adds. “Styrofoam does the job without the additional expense there. People keep looking for ways to replace the Styrofoam, but nothing has been developed so far that’s as good.”


While much of the drive for standardisation has been focused on measuring performance and the establishment of guidelines for players in the cold chain to adhere to, there are also more immediate and tangible aspects like packaging. The Holland Flower Alliance took a major step on the way to a more standardised way of shipping flowers last year with the development of a standard box designed to make the shipment of flowers more efficient and sustainable. After trials on the Nairobi-Amsterdam routes it unveiled the design in December, declaring that it allows for 15% more weight to be carried on airline pallets compared to other flower packaging solutions.


The vast variety of boxes used to ship flowers has been a headache for airlines and forwarders. According to one forwarder, over 100 different types of flower box’s have been in use, so standardisation promises gains in efficiency.


While processes and technology have been refined on the carrier side, it is important to be close to all actors from the perishables industry to hone product awareness, remarks Mauroux. Collaboration looks set to thrive in this arena.

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