Border closings by some countries and travel restrictions meant to curb spread of the novel coronavirus have created less belly capacity on passenger airplanes to carry highly perishable cargo, a concern for California agricultural exporters as the season for export crops such as cherries approaches.
Though vegetables are the more common California farm export going by air this time of year, Chris Connell, president of Los Angeles-based Commodity Forwarders, said agricultural exporters will soon move into the peak season for air cargo as berries and cherries are lifted to key export markets in Asia.
"If I were an agricultural shipper right now, of course I'd be very concerned," said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association in Washington, D.C.
Transporting cargo to China and Korea via air has already been made more difficult since February, due to reduced flights as efforts to contain the virus ramped up, Connell said.
Now, with flight reductions expanded for Italy and the rest of Europe, as well as for Australia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Connell said perishable cargo such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, meats and dairy products will increasingly compete for space on aircraft with other commodities and express shipments.
Costs to fly perishables, particularly to Europe, could rise 25% to 30%, Connell estimated. Fried said he has heard freight rates could increase "upwards of three times what they normally are."
Because shipping lines have canceled sailings from China to the U.S. due to a lack of cargo as productivity dropped in China, empty containers continue to pile up in the U.S. waiting for ships to bring them back. This has placed increased pressure on airfreight capacity, Fried said. He noted that exporters who faced problems shipping out of China are now looking for flights to move products to the U.S.
"That's going to be more of a challenge because they're not going to be the only ones at the airport," Fried said. "The flights are going to get full because demand is high. That's going to be a challenge for all shippers, regardless of what commodity you're shipping."
Fried said the U.S. 30-day ban on travel from Europe could further reduce the cargo capacity in the bellies of passenger jets that typically haul about 50 to 60% of the trans-Atlantic cargo. Though the supply of freighters is "substantial," he said, there aren't enough of them to fill the void left by passenger jets.
In general, more products are moved via freighters to the Asian markets, whereas cargo going to Europe tends to hitch rides on passenger airplanes, Connell said. Together, freighters and wide-body passenger aircraft work "hand in hand" to bring enough space "to allow us to help our customers get their goods to market at a reasonable price," he added.
Crops such as cherries that are more likely to move by air start harvest in May, but Connell said the concern now is whether there will be enough passenger aircraft back in the air by then to improve overall capacity. At this point, he said it's uncertain what volume can be moved and at what price "until we get closer to May."
"It simply comes down to butts in seats," he said. "There is a knockdown effect as people travel less, and right now it's too early to tell what the full implications are past May. Our hope is that we see people resume travel for business, pleasure and education."