Boeing highlights importance of freighter operations during sweet cherry season

Copyright: TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower. Source: Boeing

Freighter aircraft flying out of Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac) are jam-packed over a 12-week period starting in June as the US sweet cherry season gets underway.

Around 90% of the sweet cherries that are grown in the US come from the state of Washington, which is also home to aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes director of product marketing and the model leader for freighter aircraft John Perdoch says the highest quality cherries tend to be exported out of the state as that’s where they fetch the highest price, achieving a retail price of up to $40 per kg.

He says that from an export airfreight perspective, about 40,000 tonnes of cherries are exported annually from the Pacific Northwest region, which is the equivalent to about 400 fully loaded 777 freighters, and around half of that is handled through SeaTac.

In total, 20% of the cherries produced in Washington are exported to overseas markets, with China, South Korea and emerging markets in Southeast Asia the largest destinations.

Perdoch says the expectation is for the cherries to get from the field to the shelf in Asia within 48 hours, which is faster than those produced for the domestic US market.

Given the value of the produce, maintaining quality during transport is essential and this is where freighters come into their own, he explains.

“Cherries are of course a perishable item so they are sensitive to humidity and temperature gradients, so they need to get to the market quickly.

“They are also a very soft-skinned fruit so they are susceptible to physical damage as well, so the least amount of touch points by the transportation industry and the best temperature and humidity controls are required to get the product and have it in that condition where they are worth $40 per kg.”

He adds that the high water content of the cherries and the ability to load many in a small space tends to mean an aircraft will reach its weight limitations before space limitations.

“These types of special cargo are the types of thing we are thinking about when we design freighters to make sure it is not just one part of the market that we are focussed on.

“We are trying to make sure our airplanes can move these types of goods as well, which means high densities, quality, temperature control – things of that nature.”

He says the Boeing 777 freighter is able to offer the highest carrying density on the market at present at 10.1 pounds per cu ft.

Source: Emre Akkoyun/shutterstock.com

The cargo compartments are individually controllable in the 4-26 degrees Celsius range, which captures the centre range for perishable goods.

In contrast, the bellies of passenger aircraft don’t always have temperature-controlled compartments, or where they do, they are limited in size.

The aircraft offers a maximum payload of 107 tonnes and has a range of 5,000 nautical miles, which avoids the need to stop on route when flying from the US to Asia.

Perdoch adds that the aircraft is the “most reliable widebody in history at 99.7 schedule reliability” – also important when carrying perishable items.

Freighter flights can also operate to where the cargo needs to go and when.

“Seattle has wonderful international passenger connectivity but you can send a freighter right to where the products need to go and not have to think about being suitable for the passenger market as well.

“For example, a lot of cargo operations are in the evening and that is actually a better time for temperature-sensitive goods – it is a lower thermal load if there is cargo sitting out on the ramp.”

The aircraft manufacturer is in the process of launching a new freighter – the 777-8F – and Perdoch says this will offer even greater protection for perishable products.

“Firstly, the 8F is a bigger airplane so we have additional cargo positions and more payload capability at 118 tonnes compared with 107 tonnes for today’s 777F

“With those larger compartments comes an increase in the capability of the environmental control systems – we are providing more airflow per pallet position onboard the airplane and we have also decreased the minimum temperature of the compartments so now the cargo compartments will be selectable down to 2 degrees Celsius instead of 4 degrees Celsius on today’s 777F and that allows our customers to really dial into that important 2-8C perishable zone.”

He describes this as an industry first.

“And then we are also developing technology on the 8F to increase connectivity and visibility between the cargo, the airplane and the airline’s operations centre to increase visibility of what cargo is onboard and what the condition of the cargo is during its journey.”

Cherry on the cake for LATAM Cargo

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Damian Brett

Damian Brett
I have been writing about the freight and logistics industry since 2007 when I joined International Freighting Weekly to cover the shipping sector. After a stint in PR, I have gone on to work for Containerisation International and Lloyds List - where I was editor of container shipping - before joining Air Cargo News in 2015. Contact me on [email protected]