Early last month, Cargolux launched a new weekly route from its home base in Luxembourg directly to Rafael Hernández Airport (BQN) in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. That may not seem like a logical cargo route, considering that the American commonwealth in the Caribbean has been enduring a crippling recession for the last two years and is now US$72 billion in debt. But there is one industry on the island that has proven to be nearly “recession-proof” and irresistible to air cargo forwarders and carriers: pharmaceuticals.
With manufacturing facilities from near 50 Big Pharma firms – such as Astra Zeneca, Abbott-Abbvie, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and others – Puerto Rico has become a cool-chain air cargo mecca, linking North and South America with Europe. With the new route, Cargolux flies directly to Puerto Rico and then on to North America and back. And Cargolux is not alone in its interest in the island. Earlier this summer, IAG Cargo began offering belly capacity on flights between the capital, San Juan, and Madrid, Spain.
Soon after the first Cargolux flight from Europe to Puerto Rico began, Air Cargo World spoke with Stavros Evangelakakis, global product manager for Cargolux, about the state of the pharma market, the reason BQN was chosen as the main hub and any future pharma plans for the all-cargo carriers.
Q: How did the relationship between Cargolux and Puerto Rico begin?
Puerto Rico is not new for us. The way we started it a couple of years ago was to support the high demand of flowers going from South America to Europe, landing in BQN to take on fuel. And then, of course, we realized that Puerto Rico is a leading producer of pharmaceuticals. So I think it was a natural move, not only flying out of BQN but also into BQN to support both sides.
Q: Were there any system or cool-chain equipment upgrades needed to handle the extra pharmaceutical traffic with the new frequency?
Everything on the planes is the same, we’ve just expanded our network. We went [to Puerto Rico], we analyzed the market, we visited customers and declared there was a need for us to be there. It confirms our commitment to pharmaceuticals. Since 2014 we have been GDP-certified. We have now a larger community in pharmaceuticals, and we know exactly what it takes to handle them. And if there’s other general cargo that fits, we would be more than happy to take it.
Q: Why was Aguadilla chosen over the more popular San Juan?
Since we had operated out of Aguadilla before, we decided to go also into Aguadilla. It’s only about 135 kilometers away from San Juan, and the pharma industry is distributed all over Puerto Rico, so it was not really a big problem. If you ask the forwarding and airline communities, there are many more people flying into San Juan, but the facilities are congested. At BQN, the facilities are very nice, it’s not congested and the ground handling there already has a very good setup. And if people would like to book with us through San Juan, we have no problem doing it, and then trucking it to San Juan. If it’s pharmaceuticals, of course, we would do it with a temperature-controlled truck to avoid any type of temperature disruption.
Q; Which type of freighters will be used on these routes?
We will use all the freighters – the 747-8s or the -400s. You try to use the dash-8s because there is more capacity, but if I have to use the -400, I will use the -400. We’re using all our aircraft to fly into Puerto Rico.
Q: What types of cargo are shipped weekly to Puerto Rico from Europe?
Puerto Rico is not a big market, but you do have general cargo flow. You do also have pharmaceuticals, but there are a lot of unfinished products going into Puerto Rico. From Europe, it’s one frequency, on Sunday. And out of Puerto Rico, we used to have three – now coming back it’s going to be four. The rest is coming back via South America on the backside, carrying mostly fresh products, including flowers.
Q: Does Cargolux plan to expand this service any further?
For the time being, we would like to learn from it and see how the communities accept it, unless there is a need for us to add more frequencies and it fits well in our schedule and makes commercial sense. There is a strategy behind continuing growing pharmaceuticals and – in general – special products, but right now, the plan is to stay with one frequency and we’ll take it from there.