Nearly 4,000 tonnes of flowers move through Schiphol Airport (AMS) during Valentine’s Day season, whether it be roses, tulips, carnations or gerberas. Although a seemingly simple commodity, fresh flowers are a source of significant cargo demand around holidays such as International Women’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Singles’ Day, boosting volumes at airports while also bringing joy to the individuals gifted a bouquet or single stem.
Transporting flowers is no easy feat, whether they’re imported from farms in Kenya, Colombia, Ecuador or Ethiopia, and exported to countries like Russia, China and Thailand. Flowers, like all perishable cargo, are both time and temperature sensitive, requiring meticulous equipment and planning for transportation to run smoothly. Timing is key … and there is never a dull moment in flower logistics.
Using refrigerated coolers, specialized packaging and digitalized data planning, cargo stakeholders are constantly evaluating how to optimize the delicate process of transporting flower cargo to ensure bouquets stay fresh and intact from bud to bloom.
Like most commodities, flower imports faced supply chain challenges early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Jimmy Nares, section chief of aviation marketing at Miami-Dade International Airport (MIA), told Air Cargo World.
“There were flower production disruptions in the flower-producing markets due to employees being out sick [and] staffing shortages in the logistics industry, and securing cargo capacity also became more challenging for shippers as overall global demand for airfreight increased over the past two years,” Nares said. “However, we have seen cargo shipments get back to normal and even had a higher volume of flower imports in 2021 compared to 2019, or pre-pandemic.”
Indeed, flower imports in 2021 were up 37% to 297,448 tonnes of flower imports compared with 2019, Nares said. Flower cargo from Colombia and Ecuador made up 92% of MIA’s flower imports last year, with shipments being transported by carriers like Atlas Air, Avianca, LATAM, DHL Aero Express and KLM Martinair, among others, he added.
Flowers moving through the Netherlands also saw an increase in airfreight, especially during Valentine’s season 2022, when AMS volumes were up 15% year over year, Roos Bakker, director of business development, Schiphol cargo at AMS, told Air Cargo World.
U.S.-based forwarder C.H. Robinson also noted an 18% increase in demand in 2021 — the highest the forwarder has seen in decades, Mark Petersen, vice president at C.H. Robinson, told Air Cargo World. Specifically looking at Mother’s Day, cargo demand was up 20% YoY in 2021, indicating an upward trend that has continued into 2022.
“Due to the pandemic, consumers are spending more time than ever at home, and as such are bringing more items to freshen up their home office, including flowers,” Petersen said.
However, demand has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. This year, volumes are driven by flower sales in supermarkets and the resurgence of large-scale events like weddings and parties, Claudio Torres, vice president for South America at LATAM Cargo Group, told Air Cargo World.
Infrastructure as the root of success
Once flowers are ready to be harvested, the specialized floral supply chain is set into motion: Storage before, during and after delivery remains a primary focus throughout their transportation.
In turn, it is especially important for airports to have the proper facilities and warehouse space to properly store and transfer flowers. MIA holds the largest quantity of dedicated, on-airport, refrigerated cooling space of any U.S. airport, with approximately 395,000 square feet of cooler space, MIA’s Nares said. As cargo demand continues to grow, MIA plans to construct a multilevel Vertical Integrated Cargo Community on airport grounds, which will double its current on-airport cargo capacity and enhance its flower logistics capabilities through mechanized cargo handling systems and other new technologies, he added.
South American carrier LATAM Cargo, which operates 99,000 square feet of cold storage at MIA, is one of the carriers investing in airport infrastructure to ensure that flowers are delivered with the longest shelf life possible. In addition to operating the largest, exclusive cooler infrastructure at MIA, LATAM Cargo has delivery doors right outside the cooler rooms to minimize temperature exposure, LATAM’s Torres said. In 2020, the cargo carrier improved its cooler technology by adding evaporators to help better preserve the flowers at its Bogota (BOG) hub, and later in 2021 renovated all its cooler equipment to ensure stability in the cold room as well as increase cooler capacity, he added.
Meanwhile at AMS, which offers 126,815 square meters of cool storage space at or nearby the airport, there are specially adapted docking stations that lead to cool warehouses to ensure the arriving flowers remain unexposed to ambient temperatures when transferred from trucks to the security checkpoint. AMS’ Bakker further noted that the optimal temperature for flower shipments ranges between 2 and 5 C.
In addition to on-site cooling facilities at AMS, packaging must also be considered as the potential for temperature excursions rises with each new point of handover, Bakker said. Likewise, the Holland Flower Alliance, a partnership between AMS, KLM Cargo and Royal FloraHolland, has created a “smart crate” solution for flowers in order to avoid potential temperature excursions.
The Alliance aims to improve the overall quality of the floral supply chain and has explored ways to set up a customized cargo flight data system to help plan shipments, manage supply chain activities and monitor trends, Bakker said. Likewise, smart crates are all uniform and made from sustainable materials, enabling the boxes to be perfectly fitted onto pallets without wasting space. The crates allow over 15% more cargo to be loaded onto the aircraft while also improving air circulation, allowing the flowers to stay cool.
“Handovers are never good for flower quality,” Bakker said. “They should be minimized to prevent things going wrong or the product being mishandled, [and] standardized packaging enhances the quality and longevity of flowers.”
Innovation in bloom
Digital transformations, supply chain collaboration and further process innovation — such as digital information sharing and packaging — will only help further strengthen the floricultural supply chain, AMS’ Bakker said.
“Customs procedures must be taken care of, and documentation must be in place well ahead of schedule,” she said. “By improving information exchange at every leg of the journey, risks of delay are minimized and the integrity of the freight is protected.”
AMS has spearheaded a variety of digital initiatives to further strengthen the floricultural supply chain, increase process visibility and leverage data to optimize shipments. This includes a track-and-trace app, set up in collaboration with the Holland Flower Alliance, which monitors the transport journey.
“We carefully look at each element of the [flower supply chain] process, and we minimize any risk of damage or delay due to excess handling,” Bakker said. “We also address the problem of cut flowers being shipped at temperatures that are often too high. In this way, we ensure that flowers receive optimal care and attention.”
Collaboration between stakeholders, such as AMS and the Holland Flower Alliance, enables the efficient transport of flowers, reducing the chances of wilted or damaged shipments. In fact, forwarder DSV can transfer flowers at busy airports within two and a half hours, due to agreements with local inspectors.
A similar system is in place at MIA, where the U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) allows clients to perform import inspections at their own warehouse, speeding up processes, LATAM’s Torres said. The carrier is also able to provide reduced delivery times at MIA, creating a fast breakdown process to ensure that the flowers stay in optimal conditions.
Optimizing processes can be far more cost efficient than investing in infrastructure for floral transport, according to some industry experts.
“It’s more important to invest time in making the process smoother, to work with all the stakeholders to get the right information and to speed up the process,” Diego Garcia, chief operating officer at LATAM Cargo, said during a Fresh Flower Forum hosted by MIA and Brussels Airport (BRU) in March.
A collaborative effort among growers, freight forwarders, airports and carriers, the flower supply chain requires meticulous planning. New investments and digital transformation efforts paired with strengthened infrastructure are allowing cargo operators to construct a stronger cold chain to better serve surging flower demand.