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Summer brings cherries jubilee for some cargo carriers

By John W. McCurry on July 31, 2014

Virtually all of the phrases that incorporate the word “cherries” denote something happy and positive. That’s certainly the case this summer for cargo carriers serving the Pacific Northwest, as the banner cherry crop has been the cherry on top of the sundae.

This has been especially true for cargo carriers serving Seattle’s Sea-Tac International Airport and Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia.

Tom Green, senior manager for air cargo operations and development at Sea-Tac International Airport, says when the last cherry is picked in a few weeks, it will likely be the second strongest crop on record for the region. The crop is running ahead of forecasts and is huge compared to last year, when poor weather resulted in reduced tonnage. Cherries are the top perishable cargo shipped out of Sea-Tac.

It has been a bonanza for air cargo carriers, both those with freighters in their fleets and those who only carry the sweet fruit in their bellies. Eight cargo carriers who feature freighters have hauled cherries this summer out of Seattle, Green says. That’s in addition to belly-cargo-only carriers such as Delta.

It has become the summer of the cherry charter at Sea-Tac. China Eastern and Nippon Cargo have both added weekly charters, while Polar Air Cargo has flown three weekly charters. In addition, EVA has added three weekly flights, Asiana has added two flights, China Airlines has added six and Korean Air five weekly flights. That’s 21 flights beyond scheduled services.

Seven of the carriers with freighters serve Asian destinations while Cargolux brings Washington State cherries to Europe.

“The charters are coming in empty and filling total loads,” Green says.

This year’s crop has produced about 22 million 20-pound boxes of Washington State cherries with a couple of weeks to go in the season, says B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission. He says 92 percent of exported cherries are shipped by air.

For Sea-Tac, the cherry cargo comes on the heels of a healthy first half of the year.

“Through June, our overall cargo tonnage is up 10 percent,” Green says. “It’s been a strong spring, certainly for exports.”

During the early weeks of the cherry season, Delta was primarily moving fruit to China and Japan. As the season has progressed, its cherry traffic also heads to Europe and Australia and will continue to do so through September. Ray Curtis, Delta’s senior vice president, global cargo sales, says Delta’s cherry business has more than doubled compared to 2013. The airline operates 10 daily wide-body flights from Seattle, including a recent expansion of its Asia schedule that added service to Seoul, Tokyo-Haneda and Hong Kong.

Air Canada is another belly-cargo carrier benefiting from the cherry bounty with flights from both Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. The season’s first cherries move from Seattle to Asia.

“We've been able to maximize dedicated reefer trucks out of Seattle connecting into our global gateways in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal,” says Keola Pang-Ching, regional manager, cargo sales for the Western U.S. and Hawaii.

Pang-Ching says the addition of five more 777-300ers in Air Canada’s fleet has provided significant network capacity for the Northwest perishable customers. From its Vancouver gateway, Air Canada serves Narita, Incheon, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and has the only non-stop service to Sydney.  

Normally, the British Columbia cherry season begins later than the Washington State season, but an unusual amount of warm weather accelerated that process this year.

“Demand has been very strong into Hong Kong,” says Stephen Phillips, Air Canada regional manger, cargo sales for Western Canada. “We are also anticipating large volumes of cherries moving into Mainland China this year. Up until last year, British Columbia cherries were not allowed to be exported into Mainland China. As a result of trade missions and lobbying from the growers and packing houses, 2014 will be the first full season whereby we can move cherries from BC into Shanghai, Beijing and other parts of China.”