Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year: a sugar kick for air cargo?

Well, the past week was likely spent wining and dining either in romantic pairs or welcoming in the Year of the Dragon – all depending on where you are in the world and where your personal or cultural interests lie. Certainly, a busy time in air cargo in the run-up to these events. Whilst Valentine’s Day is now over, Chinese New Year celebrations are still in full swing. Will this be an auspicious year for air cargo?

Wood Dragons and sweet-smelling roses.

Valentine’s Day is its very own recurring Peak Season. It is the time of year where LinkedIn is full of images of pallets of roses in cool warehouses or awaiting loading at the aircraft, and logistics companies and airlines churn out press releases with incredible statistics of tonnages shifted, extra flights being planned, and the increase in ULDs needed in the run-up to the actual day. All along with flowery texts such as Air France KLM Martinair Cargo’s post stating “Just as Cupid prepares his arrows, we too have aimed to spread love across the miles, ensuring that these flowers from the heart of Kenya find their way to brighten many a romantic gesture.” The group deployed three additional freighters to fly part of the 9000 tons of Kenyan flowers exported in 2024, straight to the heart of Europe’s flower capital: Amsterdam.

Swissport’s Flower Corridor
While the Kenyan domestic market almost suffered a flower shortage because of the increase in exports for Valentine’s Day, Swissport, as the main player in air cargo flower logistics out of Kenya via its “Flower Corridor” [commodity-specific cold-chain handling for major airline carriers] to Europe, Middle East and Far East, reported a slight dip in figures. Edwin Musungu, Head of Cargo Services at Swissport Nairobi, explained: “Every year Swissport successfully handles millions of fresh-cut flowers between January and February, aligning with peak demand during the Valentine’s Day season, which begins in late January. For the current year, we anticipate[d] to handle approximately 9,000 tons of flowers, a slight decrease from previous years attributed to aircraft capacity constraints, with carriers prioritizing the lucrative Chinese market due to the overlap with the Lunar New Year in 2024.”

A brief window with a big impact
“Valentine’s Day is the first notable date in the year where American sees flower volumes peak across its cargo network,” American Airlines Cargo’s PR pointed out, revealing that between 01FEB-10FEB24, the carrier had transported over 500 tons of flowers – mostly out of Amsterdam in Europe, plus Latin America. And Latin America is where it is all at, too. “In the United States, 80% of flowers imported are from Colombia,” said Atlas Air’s release reporting that the carrier had expanded its flower business by adding 5-weekly Medellín flights to its network alongside its existing Bogotá connection which is served with a B747: “This year, there’s more love in the air, when it comes to Atlas’ operation. On 17JAN24, Atlas began operating a B767 filled with flowers out of José María Córdova International Airport (MDE) and into Miami International Airport (MIA).

Flowers on the inside and outside of the plane
Avianca Cargo as the leading cargo airline for flower transports from Colombia to North America, published that it had operated around 300 flights between 16JAN24 and 08FEB24 (doubling its normal capacity) and carried in the region of 18,000 tons of mainly “roses and carnations from Bogota; pompons, hydrangeas and chrysanthemums from Medellin; and roses, carnations and gypsophila from Quito.” As a tribute to its flower business, one of its aircraft now bears an exclusive flower livery. Investments in its Miami infrastructure, personnel, and process improvements led to new records in processing and delivery times, and consistently high service levels.

Offset to Conserve
Over at LATAM Group, the emphasis was also on sustainable flower transport. Together with María Flowers, the first flower client to participate in LATAM Group’s ‘1+1: Offset to Conserve’ program, the group offset over 1,290 tons of CO2 – a figure equivalent to all flowers transported in 2023. The initiative supports the conservation of strategic ecosystems in South America. Customers cover 50% of their compensation costs, and LATAM Cargo covers the remaining 50%.

Not just any Dragon – 2024 is the year of the Wood Dragon
The Chinese Lunar New Year began four days prior to Valentine’s Day, on 10FEB24, and lasts 15 days. Given that everything shuts down in China, the pressure to get cargo shifted prior to the celebrations, pushes a natural surge in tonnage. One that this year was exacerbated by ongoing problems in shipping through the Red Sea. Details on air cargo tonnage figures will be clearer once factories open again, so instead, let us look at the Chinese Horoscope prediction for this new Year of the Dragon, which is actually a Wood Dragon in 2024. “The Year of the Wood Dragon is believed to be able to foster growth, progress and abundance, and this year will be good to build a solid foundation for something new with long-term potential. The last Year of the Wood Dragon was 60 years ago, in 1964,” writes Lily Zi in South China Morning Post. Sounds good. What did the last Year of the Wood Dragon look like for cargo?

The last Year of the Wood Dragon in air cargo
60 years ago was a glory period for air cargo, judging by reports from the Air Transport Association of America (ATA). Whilst researching air cargo in 1964, I found this excerpt from The New York Times, 27FEB64. Bearing the title ‘Air Cargo Traffic Rising’, it stated that “domestic air cargo traffic last month was 14% greater than in JAN63, the Air Transport Association said today. The 11 trunk airlines and three all‐cargo airlines carried 73.5 million-ton miles of air freight, mail and express in the first month of 1964. A ton mile is a ton of cargo carried one mile.” Just half a year previously, airlines had begun adding ‘all-cargo jet freighters’ to their fleets, and ATA wrote in its Facts & Figures paper (published 1965) that “The total [American] jet freighter fleet now stands at 32, with 38 more on order for delivery during 1965 and beyond. This represents an investment of about USD 475 million.”

Air cargo managers are experts in distribution…
1964 was the year that saw United become the first US airline to offer a nonstop transcontinental all-cargo service (MAR64). By the end of that year, ATA reported that “Cargo traffic (freight, mail and express) continued to show strong growth. The industry preformed a total of 1.8-billion-ton miles, up 20.5% from 1963. Freight registered the strongest gain in this category. The airlines performed 1.3-billion-ton miles, a gain of 27% over the previous year. 1964 was the best year in a ten-year upward trend in demand for freight service. The average annual rate of increase for freight has been 16%.” It also stated that “Air cargo is growing at a much faster rate than passenger service and seems likely one day to overtake the passenger business. Air cargo managers are experts in the total cost of distributing commodities and must therefore understand and help modify the distribution patterns of the nation’s industries.” To that end, it was also the year that “airlines are building a totally new mechanical jet-age loading system on the ground”. They were channelling investments into new cargo terminal facilities at airports, and discovered the magic of moving live cattle (100,000 heads of calves were transported over a 4-month period from New York to Milan that year), and fresh fruit and vegetables – at the time, the fastest-growing segment [20% increase to previous year] of the air cargo industry, while machine parts maintained the number one position in volume ranking.

1964 was solid oak – will 2024 be more matchstick or roof beam?
An auspicious year for air cargo then. 2024 has its own battles to fight and can only dream of the growth figures from 60 years ago. After a mostly soggy 2023, with recovery only happening towards the Christmas peak at the end, 2024 may have seen a stronger start, but looks set to weaken again after this Valentine’s Day/Chinese New Year peak as various economies struggle and geopolitical issues continue to dominate. Air cargo needs to push its way into the limelight again, to fully benefit from investments into ongoing innovation and positive change – i.e. bring about the “growth, progress and abundance” associated with the Year of the Dragon.

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