US: Airlines awash in international shipments of cherries
Cherries sure mean a lot of work at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, just like they do in the Yakima Valley. The number of international cargo flights — carrying everything from U.S. seafood to computer chips to customers around the globe — doubles each June and July.
“All because of cherries,” said Tom Green, senior manager for air cargo operations and development for Sea-Tac airport.
Our tender fruit, sometimes given away in Yakima Valley office lunchrooms and neighbourhood picnics, fetches up to $ 10 per pound from affluent Asian shoppers who consider it a luxurious delicacy and a perfect fit for their gift-giving culture.
To meet that sophisticated demand, airlines reroute their cargo planes to Sea-Tac’s ramps and haul the cherries in 100-ton loads to Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and — for the first time this year — Shanghai on what have been nicknamed “Cherry Charters.”
Near-perfect spring weather left growers expecting to harvest about 21.3 million 20-pound boxes of cherries, the third-highest haul ever.
Even with advances in cold storage, fresh Washington cherries must be flown to reach overseas customers before the fruit rots. The bulk reach export markets in the belly of passenger planes, right next to suitcases.
Airlines don’t reroute passenger flights just to pick up cherries when the supply spikes. They will, however, send more cargo planes.
This year, three new carriers have added Sea-Tac to their cargo plane stops for a total of 10. Some of those airlines make 10 flights a week. In total, cherries alone account for 21 extra cargo flights per week during the six to eight weeks of cherry harvest, up from 14 last year.
China Eastern Airlines joined the crowd this summer, for the first time flying cherries directly to mainland China.
The state-controlled airline ships to a handful of online retailers similar to Amazon that will deliver cherries directly to their shoppers’ doors for up to $ 10 per pound, said Keith Hu, director of export business development for the Washington State Fruit Commission, who helped set up some of the exchanges.
At those prices, it’s no wonder airlines are quick to route their cargo planes to Seattle for a load of cherries.
The cherries make it from tree to door in roughly 72 hours, often faster than they take to get to New York or Boston by truck. Cherries are never flown domestically.
Year-to-year, roughly one-third of Washington’s cherries, just like all the state’s fruit, are exported. And China is one of the fastest growing destinations.
Since 2005, China has gone from the 16th biggest international consumer to second, behind only Canada, where cherries are trucked, according to Washington Fruit Commission statistics. In 2012, one of the biggest years for cherries, Washington sent 1.14 million boxes to China for a value of $ 39.9 million.
China Eastern’s new direct flights give Yakima Valley growers and packers an extra “foot in the door,” said Howard Nager, vice president of marketing for Domex Superfresh Growers of Yakima, one of two state packers shipping on the new flights. The other is Yakima Fresh of Yakima.
Chinese customers, the ones who can afford to, often include fruit in gift baskets, Nager said. And they will pay top dollar.
“You’re talking about consumers who … are paying $ 85 for a melon,” he said.
Publication date: 7/23/2014