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Thu 30 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Chain reaction

Perishable goods are a booming and profitable market for airlines. However, such items require careful handling, especially in the heat of the Middle East.

|~||~||~|The transportation of perishable goods has become big business for many airlines around the world as consumers demand goods like fruit, vegetables and flowers all year round. The Middle East is at the centre of this market, as it is an ideal transit point for goods going from India, Australasia and Africa to Europe and the Americas. The growth of the local economy, especially in the Gulf, is also making it an important market in itself.

As perishable goods are time and temperature sensitive, airlines have to maintain a cool chain throughout the journey, so as to ensure that the goods arrive at their destination with their shelf life still in tact. Air cargo is, of course, the ideal mode of transport for perishables because of its speed, which is crucial for time-sensitive goods.

Leveraging on its hub in Dubai, Emirates has been able to build a booming business in perishable items, which make up a large share of its cargo operations. “The contribution of temperature sensitive products (TSPs) to Emirates SkyCargo’s bottom line is significant, forming 18% of our total tonnage and 22% of our revenue in the financial year 2004-2005,” notes David Pierce, manager cargo business development & projects, Emirates.

Around 50% of the TSPs carried by SkyCargo are perishable items; the other half consists mainly of pharmaceutical and healthcare produce. Of the perishable items, 52% are meat and seafood, 26% are fruit & vegetables, 12% are flowers and 10% are other goods.

About 80% of the perishables carried by SkyCargo transit through Dubai, with the remainder being distributed across the Gulf market. The airline’s major source markets for perishables are Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa, with the goods mainly heading to Europe and the Americas.

The importance of the perishables market for Emirates will increase further later in the year when the Flower Centre opens at Dubai Airport. This will cater to a range of perishable items, but particularly the booming floral market. The demand for flowers is increasing around the world, but especially in the Middle East, because of the growth of the local hospitality industry. Dubai is well placed to cash in on this trend, both local and internationally, especially because of its proximity to the large flower growers in east Africa. “The volume of cut flowers transported through Dubai International Airport is already quite high, but with the opening of the flower centre we expect shipments to rocket,” Pierce predicts.

Transporting perishable items requires specalised handling in order to ensure that the goods are not spoiled. Airlines address this in a number of ways, including staff training. SkyCargo, for instance, has a specialist training course called ‘Cool Chain: the Unbreakable Link,’ while Cargolux is set to roll out a new training programme within the next month. “We have procedures in place for our staff on how to handle perishable goods, so they have knowledge on what to expect, how to accept it and how to load it,” says Stavros Evangelakakis, sales manager, EMEA, Cargolux.||**|||~||~||~|“It is simple really; if something goes wrong, if the temperature is not maintained, then it does not matter what you do afterwards as the goods are already wasted,” he adds.

To prevent this from happening, speed is critical, especially when the goods arrive in the Middle East in temperatures of 48°C. Emirates, for instance, tackles this by aiming to move as much perishable cargo as it can directly between aircraft. “Since a significant amount of the traffic that we manage transits through our hub at the Emirates SkyCargo Centre, our staff have been trained to move the cargo directly from one aircraft to another and employ a process called Quick Ramp Transfers to cut down on transit time,” Pierce explains.

Inside the freighters, themselves, different compartments allow for the transportation of goods at different temperatures. The Boeing 747-400Fs operated by Emirates, for instance, have four independent temperature-controlled zones, while Cargolux’s 747 freighters are able to maintain different temperatures in the belly and main deck of the aircraft.

The use of temperature-controlled ULD containers also helps in maintaining freshness. These units allow goods to be stored separately, which thereby prevents cross-contamination, and ensures that the cargo remains at the optimum temperature for up to seven days, even when the outside conditions are over 40°C. “The demand for temperature-sensitive air cargo is growing faster than for general cargo, as such airlines offering cold chain management products are striving for quality, value added services and customer loyalty, which can only be achieved if the right ULDs and systems are in place,” says Magnus Welander, CEO of Envirotainer, which provides ULDs to a host of airlines, including Emirates, Cargolux and Air France Cargo.

“The containers we supply can be set to temperatures in the frozen segment at -20°C, as well as the chilled segment and, to a certain extent, also for the room temperature segment, which is 2-25°C. This is vital for some sectors of the market, especially modern drugs that are developed based on biological products, and are therefore temperature sensitive,” says Welander.

However, while airlines are focusing on handling perishable goods, other parts of the supply chain have less developed procedures in place. As such, a number of airlines, cargo carriers and suppliers formed the global Cool Chain Association (CCA) two years ago to help develop best practices across the industry. Emirates has played a key part in forming the CCA, particularly Pierce, who is the treasurer of the association.

“We have taken a leadership role in establishing the CCA as we recognise the need to streamline the processes within the industry. The CCA is working with both the logistic service suppliers and end user customers so hopefully there will eventually be a certain set of standards that we can all adhere to,” he says.||**||

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