You can’t say ‘I love you’ without logistics

Looking up at plane overhead through circle of red flowers

Flowers are the quintessential gift on Valentine’s Day, but most people have no idea how their roses and chrysanthemums made it to their local florist or grocery store.

Behind the scenes, an intricate choreography of logistics parties that rely on air transport and refrigeration every step of the way makes their gift of love possible. 

Avianca Cargo freighter. (Photo Credit: Miami-Dade Aviation Dept.)

“The key is cold chain management. Once we pick the product in the country of origin, we hurry to get it in boxes and into the coolers. The faster we can get it cooled in the dormant stage, the longer it can last,” said Christine Boldt, executive vice president of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida (AFIF). “The product loses life if the temperature fluctuates. Every time the temperature goes up, that’s when it loses life. It’s not how long it’s been in the cooler.”

Flower producers, transportation providers, importers and distributors have been rushing for three weeks to get an estimated 500 million roses and other floral delights to sellers in time for the holiday. Popular flowers this year include gypsophila (baby’s breath), alstroemeria and iris.

About 90% of flower imports by air come through Miami International Airport (MIA) before being dispersed around the U.S. An additional 4.9% come through Los Angeles, and 4.3% come through New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The top foreign sources for cut flowers, by weight, are Colombia (68%) and Ecuador (22%). Together they represent 80% of flower imports by value ($1.56 billion). Major cities such as Bogotá, Medellin and Quito are only 3.5 to four hours flying time to Miami.

Besides its proximity to key growing regions, Miami is the logistics hub for flowers because of the supporting infrastructure at the airport and throughout South Florida that enables efficient and safe handling of delicate products. Three quarters of the nation’s fruit and vegetable imports by air also enter through MIA. An extensive network of importers, customs brokers and distributors is responsible for picking up these perishable shipments and getting them to market. The industry also works closely with U.S. government agencies responsible for import safety, security and revenue collection to make sure flowers are rapidly processed.

In a unique arrangement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has pest inspectors available 24/7 year-round, while U.S. Department of Agriculture agents are on duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can work overtime if necessary. That schedule is important because many flights carrying flowers arrive at night or in the early morning.

Many flowers shipped from Europe enter the U.S. in Miami. too.

Proper packaging and express shipping are critical to preserving flowers and a satisfied customer.

To minimize damage and maximize shelf life, growers harvest flowers in the early morning, hydrate and box them, and put them in a refrigerated store room before sending them to the airport in a refrigerated truck the same day, according to industry experts.

At the airport, the shipment immediately goes into a refrigerated warehouse where the boxes are stacked on flat containers, or skids, and then loaded on the plane.

Cargo planes are typically loaded in the evening, when it’s cooler. At a high-altitude airport like Bogota, cargo carriers tend to operate at night so that their fully loaded aircraft can achieve better performance at takeoff, according to a briefing paper by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The top all-cargo carriers for flowers in Miami are LATAM Airlines, Avianca, Atlas Air, Centurion, UPS, FedEx, DHL, British Airways and Ethiopian.

UPS added 64 flights to handle the surge in volume, UPS Airlines spokesman Jim Mayer said. LATAM Cargo said in a news release Thursday that flower traffic from Latin America increased 45% to 12,600 tons for the 2020 Valentine’s Day season and that it took 210 flights with its fleet of Boeing 767-300 freighters to move it all. Ninety percent of the flowers were for U.S. consumption, with 7% bound for the Netherlands. Flowers were also flown to New York, China, Australia, Spain and Chile.

Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

In 2019, LATAM Cargo required 140 flights to transport flowers in the run-up to Valentine’s Day. The additional flights were partly due to a permanent expansion of cargo operations in Colombia and Ecuador last year, with increased frequency and capacity throughout the year. For the Valentine’s Day season, LATAM added 96 extra frequencies, more than doubling its normal operation for a four-week period.

UPS planes are outfitted with expensive temperature control systems, which chill both decks between 34 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit, Mayer said. Flying at night also helps keep products chilled.

At the Miami gateway, flowers are outside the climate-controlled environment for less than 15 minutes before going into a cooler to sit for several hours until inspected. If CBP finds any blooms infested with insects, USDA specialists are summoned to confirm the pest’s identify and determine whether the flowers need fumigation — which is offered by a couple of companies on airport grounds.

Airline staff break down the pallets, then sort, stack and shrink wrap them onto wood pallets.

Once the flowers have been cleared, local wholesale vendors take the flowers from the airport in a refrigerated truck to a consolidated facility — such as a flower market — where other local flower distributors can purchase them. The flowers are packed into boxes or developed into bouquets and then sold to mass marketers and retail chains.

The AFIF’s Boldt said most of the product handled by her members leaves Miami on a refrigerated truck to markets across the country. That’s a boon for truckers who struggle to find backhaul cargo from Florida. About 35 trucking lines in Miami specialize in flower transport throughout North America, according to the Florida DOT. The refrigerated trailers are also equipped with air-ride suspension, ethylene gas and temperature sensors to ensure flowers are preserved.

Some flowers are transferred at MIA to widebody passenger planes and freighters for delivery to Europe and China.

Other shipments are put on domestic passenger planes, where they are booked for priority loading. Southwest Airlines, for example, gets imported flowers delivered to its facility in Fort Lauderdale, which has many daily departures. It also trucks some shipments to Orlando, where the airline has even more daily service around the country, cargo chief Wally Devereaux told FreightWaves last month.

AT UPS, bulk shipments are typically released to local flower distributors early in the holiday season, but as the big day approaches, more individual express shipments are flown to the company’s main hub in Louisville, Kentucky, or regional hubs in Dallas or Philadelphia to be sorted and connect with flights to the final destination, Mayer said.

And for individual purchases from online florists, UPS will deliver boxes directly to a customer’s door.

Weather has cooperated this season to enable on-time deliveries, Boldt said. 

Other ports of entry

(Photo Credit: Dallas/Fort Worth Int. Airport)

Mexico in recent years has increasingly become a source for flowers. Many California growers found it difficult to make a profit because of strict land, water and labor rules and moved some production to Mexico, Boldt said.

Mexico represents about 2.5% of annual flower imports to the U.S., according to Census data. Stems are trucked across the land border through Laredo and El Paso, Texas, as well as Otay Mesa, California, and other checkpoints.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport said it had received about 80 tons of flowers per week from Colombia and Ecuador since mid-January for local distribution and transfer to Asia thanks to new freighter services. The airport has become more popular as a transit point because flower wholesalers and local retailers are demanding reduced transit times to maintain product freshness and improve profit margins.

American Airlines said it moved 920,000 pounds of flowers from Amsterdam to the U.S. this season, a 15% increase over the same 2019 period. Exporters purchase the flowers at the giant Aalsmeer flower auction and send them around the world on American and other airlines. American flies the blooms directly on large passenger jets to Philadelphia International Airport or trucks them to London’s Heathrow Airport to be flown to destinations such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Miami.