Australia air freight crunch hits flights of fancy foods

Wed Oct 19, 2016 1:45am EDT
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By Cecile Lefort

SYDNEY - An unprecedented shortage of air cargo space, after years of booming exports to Asia, is forcing Australian producers of top-end foods to potentially miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in sales of everything from lobster to cherries.

Australia has been pushing to become the 'delicatessen of Asia', tapping its favorable climate to send crates of luxury produce such as figs and edible flowers to store shelves across the increasingly-affluent region.

But finding space on planes has become a headache as producers of delicacies crank up output, with suppliers saying the crunch has been exacerbated as freight carriers are prioritizing higher-margin shipments of beef and milk.

"Getting air space is our biggest challenge because we are in this market only six weeks per year (after picking)," said Lucy Gregg from Tasmania-based cherry grower Reid Fruits. "It's not much bargaining power."

David Minnis, a veteran fruit and vegetable exporter in Melbourne, said growers of such produce were losing out on up to A$100 million ($76 million) in potential sales to Asia per year - a figure that does not include similar missed opportunities in seafood and other fresh foods.

"Air freight is very important to us because some produce, like cherries, asparagus and peaches, can't go by sea," he said.

Australian fruit can take two days to get to supermarket shelves in China by plane, compared to around two weeks by water.

All up, exports of Australian rural goods - which include meat, fruits, vegetables and cotton sent by sea and air - were valued at A$42.7 billion in the 12 months to August, up 37 percent from five years ago, government statistics show. That accounts for about 13 percent of the nation's total exports.   Continued...

A Cathay Pacific Airways cargo plane is loaded with goods at Brisbane's West Wellcamp Airport November 23, 2015 in this handout provided by Cathay Pacific Airways October 19, 2016.     Cathay Pacific Airways/Andrew Coates/Handout via REUTERS