Freshness and quality versus environmental and climate impact

Airfreight is often the fastest and most reliable mode of transport where the movement of goods over long distances is concerned. This makes it particularly suitable for fresh products with a short shelf life such as fish or seafood. Apart from the slump during the global financial crisis, cross-border airfreight volume has risen steadily in recent years. According to estimates by the International Air Transport Association IATA it currently amounts to almost 40 million tonnes, a significant percentage of which is seafood.

About 5 per cent of annual world production of fish is today already transported by plane. And as demand for fresh products continues to grow worldwide this share is likely to rise further. The carriage of goods by air enables the trading sector to offer foreign, sometimes "exotic", fish products in a freshness and quality that were previously inconceivable due to the products’ short shelf life and the long distances between source and marketplace. Even special requests are suddenly possible and air cargo is often the only chance for landlocked consumers to enjoy catch-fresh seafood.

Airfreight is not only fast and safe, but is often chosen on account of the careful, qualified treatment and handling of the goods and at the same time the possibility to largely eliminate negative climatic conditions. This means that air transport is often chosen particularly for fresh foods that spoil easily, ("perishables") which include fish, fruit and flowers. But live animals, urgent consignments such as newspapers and medicines, or valuable and sensitive products are also typical air cargo. Which goods are worth transporting by plane depends on numerous factors and often differs from country to country. Not only are the production facilities at source decisive but also demand and climatic conditions. In the EU countries, for example, fresh fish, vegetables and exotic fruits such as papaya, guava, mango and pineapple play a significant role in the air cargo business.

The main players in the global air cargo transport business are North America, Europe and Asia. According to MergeGlobal Inc., in the year 2008 their imports amounted to 43, 41 and 34 billion tonne-kilometres respectively. (1 t-km corresponds to the transport of one tonne of cargo over one kilometre). It is not evident what proportion of these totals fish and seafood accounted for. With regard to the export sector, the continents ranked in the opposite order. The flow of goods from Asia amounted to 51 billion t-km, with deliveries divided almost equally between Europe and North America. European exports totalled about 37 billion t-km, with deliveries to Asia well ahead at 34 billion t-km. The North American flow of goods (27 billion t-km) mainly went to Asia (15 billion t-km), Europe (9 billion t-km) and South America (3 billion t-km). The weakest participant in global air transport in 2008 was Africa, with air cargo exports amounting to only 3 billion t-km which went almost entirely to Europe. Imports to Africa totalled 4 billion t-km airfreight, all of which came from Europe. Probably little has changed in this situation since then, although more detailed inspection of the data often conveys a different picture. For example, although African countries seem to play only a minor role in the global air cargo business they can be very important for some countries in Europe for certain product groups. Germany, for example, bought more than half of its imported seafood products that were transported by air, from African countries, mainly from Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda.

The advantages of airfreight are indisputable, but there are also some disadvantages and negative knock-on effects that are associated with the enormous logistical effort, the relatively high cost and the environmental impact of flying. Criticism is often rebuffed with the argument that the aircraft would be flying anyway and so it was only reasonable to pack them to the full. It is true that 80 to 85% of air cargo is transported on passenger aircraft and only the remaining fifth in cargo planes. But every additional kilogram on board increases kerosene consumption, which today – irrespective of whether passenger or cargo plane – already accounts for about half of the annual operating cost of an aircraft, and its combustion products influence our climate. Depending on the prevailing conditions, air transport causes around 170 to 200 times more emissions than the transport of the same quantity of goods by ship. Many critics therefore see aircraft as a "climate killer" and would be only too happy to replace it with other, less climate damaging methods of transport. However, this would also mean having to do without numerous exotic foods in optimal freshness and quality… foods which cannot be replaced by local products.

A disadvantage in air transport is the size limitations on packages and containers that have to fit through the hatches of the aircraft.


Smooth logistics on the ground are essential

What might not be achievable through appeals to consumer behaviour, could perhaps be much more quickly achieved through rising prices for air cargo. Already today, the prices per kilogram of airfreight, depending on the destination, flight duration, total transport volume, and other conditions, amount to 1.50 to 4.50 US dollars. This price not only limits the range of fish species that can be transported by air on commercially reasonable terms, but also clearly narrows the circle of potential buyers for these products. Many consumers will happily do without the freshness advantage if they can get the same product frozen for half or even a third of the price. Air transport is about four to five times more expensive than road transport and ten to fifteen times more expensive than sea transport.

Moreover, it is often overlooked that the speed of air transport is, strictly speaking, only measured from terminal to terminal, that is, the period between takeoff and landing. Airfreight should not be assessed in isolation, however, but always viewed in combination with the time taken to carry goods to and from the airport, usually by road. Airports with international connections to the destinations are not available everywhere, and so deliveries must therefore be incorporated into an intermodal transport chain. This requires, for example, that the shipment arrives at the airport on time prior to departure, so that veterinary authorities, customs and other bodies can carry out the necessary checks. In this context quite a few airlines now fear that the highly stringent safety regulations on certain routes, especially to Israel and the United States, could exceed the scope of what is possible. The thorough inspection of each piece of baggage and cargo not only causes additional costs and requires more personnel and technology, but is also very time-consuming. And with that, a significant advantage of air cargo, the speed of transport, is in danger of being lost. In addition, such measures increase the freight costs. Whether all this is worth the effort and whether it really does provide the desired protection against terrorist attacks, is questionable anyway, because it is probably impossible to examine every polystyrene box and every carton of a delivery. Especially since deliveries sometimes have to be reloaded during transport and might have to continue a journey they began on a cargo plane, in a passenger aircraft.

It may sound strange, but air cargo in particular requires a well-developed and functioning infrastructure on the ground. Not every airport is equally well suited for the handling of sensitive items such as fish and seafood. The time window from arrival to shipment of fresh produce is narrow. Already the delivery of the goods by road is difficult to calculate when a traffic jam on the route can quickly ruin the time schedule. Only when everything works smoothly will the goods be safely stowed on board when the plane takes off. That is why most major airports today offer a road feeder service which organizes pre- and post-shipment procedures for airfreight. For example, it bundles the goods and makes sure they arrive in the airport’s cargo area in good time before departure. For short routes, such as within Europe, the road feeders sometimes even carry out transportation to the destination airport completely on the road, perhaps because there exists a ban on night flights there. It doesn’t usually matter to the customer how their supplies are transported, as long as they arrive punctually at their destination.

Just as important as the rapid completion of all formalities and controls before departure is the qualified treatment of perishable air cargo upon arrival at the destination airport. Fish and seafood products have to be repackaged and re-iced, checked for compliance with all requirements by veterinarians and food inspectors. The faster this work is done, the sooner and fresher the products reach the markets. Only few airports in Europe meet all these requirements. Hard pressed by its competitors Paris and Amsterdam Fraport in Frankfurt asserts its position as the biggest player in the European air cargo business nearly every year. On average, more than 2 million tonnes of airfreight move through this hub every year. An important role in the 150-hectare Airport Cargo City, where 250 companies are located with well over 10,000 employees, is played by Fraport Perishable Center. As a freshness centre, it offers 9,000 square meters with 20 different climate zones, whose temperatures are graded from minus 24 to plus 24° C, as storage capacity for 130,000 tons of fresh produce. Besides exotic fruits, vegetables and meat, these mainly include fish and seafood products. More fish is handled at the Perishable Center than in Bremerhaven or Hamburg: fresh Nile perch fillets from Tanzania and Uganda, redfish from Iceland, live scallops from the United States, and lobster from Canada. With great routine the centre’s trained staff deal with all freight formalities, and checks, cares for and picks the sensitive goods so that they arrive as quickly as possible in specialized shops, supermarkets and restaurants.

The handling and preparation of fresh or even live seafood products for airfreight is a great challenge to logistics. Often the goods are not stowed into containers until immediately prior to departure.


Air cargo is a solid economic pillar for airlines

About 140 t of fresh food arrive in Germany every day as airfreight, most of it in Frankfurt. About a third of this total is fresh fish, which thus occupies the top position among the airfreight foods. Especially fresh fillets of Victoria Nile perch, fresh Cape hake, live lobster and scallops, Norway haddock, and high-value "exotic species" such as parrotfish, snapper and mahi mahi are transported by air. Based on the total market, however, only 4 per cent of the fish imported directly from third countries arrives in Germany as air cargo. The majority, on average a good 90 per cent, is transported by sea. A large amount of fresh fish is also transported by road, especially in intra-trade between the EU countries. Air transport of fish and seafood within the community is almost meaningless. In recent years, annual fresh fish deliveries from other EU countries to Germany by air were always well below 200 t.

Airfreight is becoming more and more important for the world's major airlines, especially since they tend to grow faster in this business sector than in passenger traffic. Competition among providers has intensified since airlines from the Gulf States started offering their services at low prices in an attempt to gain market shares. European airlines are often left standing because, in addition to the fierce price war, they are also slowed down by night bans at many airports.

The most important product in the global air cargo business with fish is currently fresh salmon from Norwegian aquaculture. In 2013, a total of 158,000 tonnes were flown to China and Japan, to Australia, to the United States, to South Africa and other countries. This represented a growth of 30% compared to 2012. Analysts expect similarly strong growth from Marine Harvest, the world's largest aquaculture company, for 2014. In purely mathematical terms this means that about 430 tonnes of salmon are transported by air in the different regions of the world every day of the year. Lerøy, one of the big salmon producers in Norway, exported more than 15% of its salmon by airfreight in 2010. Aurora salmon from northern Norway thus arrives in Japan already 36 hours after harvesting. The demand for air cargo capacity is increasing at least as fast as the demand for salmon in remote and new markets that can only be supplied with fresh fish by air. Exports to South Africa alone doubled to 3,000 t from 2011 to 2012… despite the fact that at about 14 NOK/kg (approximately 1.75 EUR/kg) the cost of airfreight makes the fish much more expensive. Many airlines presumably view these developments with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they are attracted by the continuity of the salmon business that promises respectable transport volumes in the cargo area on an almost daily basis. Well known airlines such as Qatar Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa Cargo, Korean and SAS are thus trying to gain as much of this lucrative business as possible. However, smaller companies often get in their way here, attracting customers with favourable conditions. Finnair Oyi, for example, hopes to double its salmon airfreight to China and Japan from the current 300 t / week to 600 t by 2020. The fish is delivered by truck from Norway and usually flown to Asia as additional cargo on Finnair Oyj passenger flights. A few months ago another competitor came onto the scene: Viking International. Viking flies salmon in “combi” planes (60 t cargo and up to 310 passengers) from Oslo to Miami and Bangkok.

Air cargo requires a well developed and functioning infrastructure on the ground

On the other hand, big customers such as Norway's salmon producers, of course, use their chance of a say in the design of airfreight contracts to negotiate lower prices. On average, airlines generate nearly 10% profit with the transport of salmon. That's not bad, but also not overly profitable. And the fierce competition among air cargo providers pushes the margins. They can earn much more with special cargo which requires special expertise. The salmon producers are aware of their significance and demand more say, better service and also want to be more involved in the control and configuration of the basic conditions on flights. They are particularly concerned about the maintenance and monitoring of optimum temperatures on long-haul flights, upon which the quality of the sensitive cargo decisively depends.

But despite all the criticism and the small share of total transport volume – 98 per cent of all goods transported worldwide are shipped, and only 2 per cent flown – without the possibility of transporting much-needed goods, perishable foods or spare parts by air it would be hard for most companies to get by today. Just how much the economy depends on airfreight became very clear at the latest when air traffic restrictions were put in place after the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. 95,000 flights were cancelled, some export-dependent companies had to cut back their production. In Iceland alone, damages were said to amount to three to five million euros.

All predictions assume that the air cargo business will continue to grow in the future. Many airlines are expanding their cargo capacities and investing in this area. The airports and airlines in the Gulf States are particularly active here and constantly expanding their network of flight connections, taking on additional cargo planes and upgrading their logistics on the ground. Around airports like Dubai or Abu Dhabi new coldstores and warehouses are springing up like mushrooms. For in the air cargo sector the logistics competence of airports is almost more important than the aircraft themselves. Not only hotels, restaurants and importers of fresh food benefit from the newly created possibilities in this blossoming tourist region, for the Middle East would like to have more say in the global air cargo business. In 2013 Dubai had already become the world's fifth-largest cargo airport and the trend looks set to continue.

Many consumers probably follow these developments with mixed feelings. Everyone knows today that air traffic, which also includes air transport of foods, releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and impacts global climate. But without airfreight and transport logistics that link the continents we would all of course have to do without many exotic delicacies and some of the fresh seafood specialities that we enjoy today.