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Product is outside for too long at many airportsThe increase in air transport has been happening for some years now, according to Alain Tulpin of the Tulpin Group. “Air freight was doomed to die,” he says. But thanks to a shift in shipping, air transport could recover. “With the larger container ships and the slow steaming effort since 2006, that has changed.” That is mostly due to the longer transportation times. “In the past, a container from Brazil to Zeebrugge would be at sea for seven days. Ships traveled 1,000 kilometres on average every day. That speed has been cut in half nowadays, so that transit times last longer.” “There’s now even such a thing as super slow steaming, for which the ships have to be equipped with new motors. Ships have turned into traveling warehouses. Air freight has recovered because of that.”
At product level, shifts can be seen between the various transport methods. “If absolutely necessary, they’ll fly grapes, while that was all done by boat a few years ago,” Alain knows. However, those shifts go both ways. Legumes, for example, used to be flown a lot, but are now shipped more often. “And then there are the products such as strawberries and beans. These have to be flown, because these types of products don’t have a long shelf life.”
Pineapple no longer flown
Another shift is that of country of origin. In the past, raspberries were flown from Chile during the winter months. Egypt, Portugal and Morocco, however, have also picked up this cultivation, so that air routes have shifted to the Mediterranean. “Ripe mangoes are also flown, although that’s temporary,” Alain says. “More mango ripening facilities are being built, and although ripening doesn’t result in the same flavour, consumers also consider the price. An airplane mango costs about 2.5 times more than boat mangoes, so even when that boat mango is ripened, it will still be cheaper.” In the long term, Alain expects that flown mangoes will be pushed away from the market. That happened with pineapples in the past. This tropical fruit was mostly flown at first, but current supply is only by ship.
Other products are permanent customers for air transport, such as exotics like guava, pomegranate or chilli pepper, which are imported in smaller volumes. “For small products, flying is still ideal.” Products that are well-known among immigrants in Europe are also often flown. “Plantain, round aubergine, okra, bitter melon,” Alain sums up a few of these products. “These last a week for importers. A container would be too much for them.” Well-known countries of origin for these products include Uganda and Benin. The fact that these countries are landlocked also plays its part in the choice of air freight.
Weight or volume are deciding factors in air transport. Alain calculates: a Boeing 747 can manage 120 tonnes of freight. When this plane is loaded with strawberries, it carries 60 tonnes of weight. “So you have to start combining, for example, you can load the bottom half with beans from Egypt and the top with strawberries, to get a healthy mix for your air freight price.” Besides, importers make various choices in transport.
“We receive volumes of grapes from Egypt, less than last year because India is on the market longer,” Alain explains. “Other importers choose transport via Koper, Slovenia, or they think price is more important, so they import the grapes via Antwerp or Rotterdam.” Other importers choose a transport mix for the products, so that a volume is imported through each of these routes, and a supply guarantee can be issued.
Cold in Spain
The Belgian air freight shipping agent offers services on various airports in the Benelux and West Germany. The services to Frankfurt and Düsseldorf have been stopped for various reasons. Alain noticed that Lufthansa flights received priority at Frankfurt, bringing an atmosphere of unfair competition with it. The company uses the airports of Brussels, Liège, Ostend, Cologne, Luxembourg, Amsterdam and Maastricht.
During the first months of the year, Alain saw demand for air transport increasing. Thanks to the cold weather in Spain in January and February, the Spanish strawberry season, for example, started slowly. “Because of that, we continued with Egyptian strawberries for a longer period,” Alain explains. “And for the first time in 16 years we did iceberg lettuce from Egypt to Scandinavia.” The lettuce was flown in and transported further north via lorries. “It makes sense. They had snow in Murcia, and the heads of iceberg lettuce rotted or were too small.” It was a major contrast compared to the previous year. “Around Christmas there were already a lot of Spanish strawberries. You never know what’ll happen with harvests.”
Competition to provide cooling
Cooling is a means of competition among providers of air freight. “In Ostend I have cells for 240 wooden pallets, and I have two BG Door fastcoolers,” Alain says. “I can cool a full load from a Boeing 747, and additionally, cooling cells from the airport are also available.” Tulpin Group doesn’t have cooling cells at other airports, but loads can be stored cold with partners. In Germany, cooling cell supply is limited. “It’s not so much about the options at airports, but about the fact that cooling at airports is expensive. Because of that, many companies decide not to cool, but at most airports the general freight warehouse is heated at 18 degrees Celsius during the winter. That profits no product.”
The speed with which products can be picked up by agents is important. Especially at large airports it can happen that a batch has to wait several hours, Alain knows. “The larger the airport, the more disastrous,” he sums up the situation. “When it’s properly organised, there’s no problem, but most agents don’t provide cooling because it’s more expensive. But as we say in Belgium: the joy of the cheaper price is quickly forgotten when quality is bad.”
Along the way, problems can also arise at airports. Most planes cool to four to seven degrees, Alain explains. “The problem is that airports in the south often leave the products outside too long. That results in most of the problems. There are a lot of quality problems with strawberries that are flown, because the fruit is outside in more than 40 degrees Celsius for too long.” Besides, a number of airlines have bought too many planes according to him, causing pressure on the prices for air freight. “There are days when there are more rabbits on the runway than Jumbo jets at the airport of Nairobi,” he exemplifies. This results in low prices. “Sometimes air transport from Nairobi to Amsterdam is cheaper than from Paris to Amsterdam by lorry.”
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