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No, you can’t get there from here (if you’re a lobster)

First published in the MLA Newsletter, March, 2012

That overused saying from the old “Bert and I” comedy skits certainly applies when it comes to shipping lobsters by air from Maine:  You can’t get there from here. Lobster dealers in Maine can’t move their live product by air unless they use FedEx, DHL or UPS, none of which can ship large quantities of the crustacean. Thus dealers must truck their product down to Boston or New York City where they link up with freight consolidators who will reserve shipping space on commercial airliners.

So why not use commercial flights landing in Bangor or Portland to move live lobsters? “The types of aircraft that land here now are smaller than before,” explained Anthony Caruso Jr., assistant director of Bangor International Airport. “There’s not much if any belly load capacity.”

Belly load? No, it’s not that full feeling you get after Thanksgiving dinner. Rather it is the term for the space in each passenger plane in which luggage is stored. If there is more space than luggage, commercial cargo can be shipped on the aircraft.

Belly load capacity of commercial planes in Bangor shrank dramatically after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Air travel dropped for several years afterward and the airlines compensated by reducing the number of seats available to passengers. How did they do that? By operating smaller planes. Caruso explained that companies such as United and Delta used to fly large passenger planes out of Bangor in the 1990s but that now only smaller companies traveling to less prominent hubs fly out of Bangor. “Seafood businesses turned to trucks to take their products to the major metropolitan areas ,” he said.

That’s just what Hugh Reynolds of Greenhead Lobster of Stonington does. “We go to Boston and to New York now,” he said. Greenhead uses Oceanair Inc., a Revere, Massachusetts freight forwarder that consolidates perishable shipments from many businesses and negotiates shipping rates with commercial airlines, to get its lobsters abroad. In fact, because Greenhead relies so heavily on air shipment of its millions of lobsters to Western Europe, Tawain, Singapore and Hong Kong, it has constructed a facility in Kittery in which to hold its live product for shipment. “A lot of live shippers have done that,” Reynolds added.

Inland Seafood, another large seafood dealer, sends most of its product to Boston for shipping either abroad or to its home base in Atlanta, Georgia. Mike Domrad said that Inland Seafood also uses a freight forwarder to get its lobsters onto commercial airplanes. “We truck it down to Boston then the company delivers it to the airline itself. We have to tell them the exact number of boxes and the weight and then they reserve space on the plan, just like a seat,” he said. Commercial planes don’t like messy cargo so Inland packs its lobsters in special fifty-pound boxes lined with plastic, each of which holds a Styrofoam cooler for the lobsters. “They run about $9 per box,” Domrad said.

Atwood’s Lobster, now owned by the Mazzetta Corporation of Chicago, also moves a lot of lobster by air to Europe and Asia and soon to South America. Peter Fischer, head of international sales at the company’s Spruce Head office, said that shipping from Portland wasn’t even on his radar. “We go down to Boston for all our air freight. There just aren’t enough options in Portland or Bangor,” he explained. He too noted that before September 11 there were more and larger commercial planes using both airports. “After that the airlines changed to smaller planes and lessened the capacity for freight cargo,” Fischer said.

All three companies have received Transportation Safety Authority (TSA) approval to certify their shipments for transport. Atwood’s has a special room in which its shipments are packed. “We have to have yearly trainings, a secure facility and special materials,” Fisher explained. “Or you can have it done by the airlines themselves but that requires an extra two hours before the flight.”

So what’s happening in Canada? According to Geoff Irvine, head of the Lobster Council of Canada, seafood companies face similar constraints in air transport of lobster. “We have very limited wide body air freight capabilities out of Halifax so we bring in charters. Lobsters are sent to Toronto and Montreal, even Boston and New York City,” he explained via e-mail.  “We have added hassles at the border, state laws on size, much longer transit in the truck, and mortality to deal with so thankfully we pack our very best and it works most of the time.”

This pattern is beginning to change with the opening of a new storage facility at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. The Gateway facility, which opened in June, 2010, is a 40,000 square foot building with 7,000 square feet of temperature-controlled cargo space and direct access to the airfield. Its Web site boasts that it can move live product from refrigerated storage space to an aircraft in less than two minutes.

“It is a fantastic facility that allows for temperature-controlled transfer of product to incoming freighters, FedEx and others and has improved quality handling for live products,” Irvine said.

Matt Lewis, cargo manager at Gateway, listed six freight forwarders -- KWE-Kintetsu, DSV, PC Forwarding, Worldwide Perishables, Clearwater, OEC -- currently operating out of the facility. Seafood comes to Gateway from throughout Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. “Most of our big planes are 767s or 757s that fly into JFK then continue to Halifax then depart for Europe,” he explained via e-mail. “As for weight, last year we shipped out roughly 4.2 million kilograms (9.25 million pounds) worth of seafood.”

Such a facility might be a long time coming to Maine. In the mid-2000s the Bangor airport contracted for a study of air freight opportunities for perishable items from Maine producers. The results were not encouraging. “First off, it’s more expensive to ship to Europe than by trucking ,” said Caruso. “Then it’s hard to dedicate an aircraft to that on a routine basis. Plus, the question remained:  is ther enough perishable product?” Given the sharp increase in lobster landings in the state over the past decade, the answer might just be “yes!”

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