Lufthansa Cargo head of operations Oliver Blum and communications director Jacqueline Casini
A German airline executive notes an uptick in fruit and vegetable imports into Europe, with an added surge in re-exports to China.
From a cost perspective most fresh produce growers would prefer to export with maritime shipping, but matters of freshness and distance often make airfreight the best option.
The European Union is the biggest fruit importer in the world and Germany is its largest market, so it makes sense its leading airline would be seeing growth as consumers take a liking to more exotic foods from far-flung parts of the world.
"They want to have tropical fruits, special fruits, as fresh as you can deliver," Lufthansa Cargo head of operations Oliver Blum told PBUK during Fruit Logistica in Berlin last week.
"We see with the mangoes, especially the variety Kent. There has been a tremendous increase," he said, adding this particular commodity was coming from South America but there were up-and-comer growers like Egypt where new growth was expected.
Other crops to witness a surge in air cargo shipments have been berries, avocados and papayas, mostly for continental Europe and the U.K., but the most notable star product of late has been cherries.
And customers, for the most part, have not been European.
"The cherries from Chile, they are exploding because the Chinese demand is so strong and it’s been growing over the years," he said.
"The volume is so big there is really a demand of capacities, and they are taking it where they can."
He says the Chilean cherries take between 12-14 hours to get to Europe, and then it is another 10-hour flight to Shanghai.
"It goes via Dakar (Senegal), but the shipment is still on the plane - it's just for refuelling - and then it goes then to Frankfurt and from Frankfurt in our hub as Lufthansa Cargo it goes to China.
"We look at the transit time in Frankfurt being as short as possible. We look to do this within 10 hours so that the flight is arriving into Frankfurt and the outbound flight is going to China or worldwide.
"But most important is what you do with the shipments on the transit hub, because what we do as experts for the perishable handling, we check the quality of the shipments."
He said the team check the quality and temperature, and can cool down the fruit once it's in Frankfurt if it gets too warm.
"We have a vacuum cooler, we have a fast cooler, to prepare the cherries for the next step of their journey.
"We are using temperature lockers like our customers do, and we also have our own lockers, but most important is when you accept the shipment that you have the normal temperature."
Given Rotterdam is the major point of re-packing fruit for the European market, we asked Blum whether Lufthansa Cargo whether it was at a disadvantage compared to Dutch airline KLM which can receive the fruit directly in Amsterdam.
"Not really because the volume is that big that the customer is asking for all kinds of capacities, and the difference is always the quality and the process time.
"In Frankfurt we have nice infrastructure because the freighter is positioned directly in front of our perishables centre, so there is really a short way from unloading the freighter into the perishables centre, and all of our trucks are waiting directly behind it.
"And all of the authorities are in one building, so the processing time in Frankfurt is short. And then you have eight hours trucking time to Amsterdam and that’s it."
These trends have led to a change in the portion of fresh fruits and vegetables in Lufthansa Cargo's business.
"In Frankfurt we are working with a perishables centre, and we have a yearly amount in perishables of about 110,000 (metric) tonnes (MT). And out of this, we as Lufthansa Cargo are flying 71,000MT per year," he said.
And out of that 71,000MT, Blum emphasised more than 50% was now made up of fresh fruits and vegetables.
"We started with a third flowers, a third fruit and vegetables, and a third meat and fish. But that changed – during the last four years fruit and vegetables have become a big commodity and it's growing. That's the reason why we are here at Fruit Logistica."