Shipping Lobster from Maine
by Sandy Dinsmore
Shipping lobster from Maine by airfreight is tough. That lobster dealers can’t fly their product from Maine frustrates every one who ships out of state including Portland dealer Peter McAleney, of New Meadows Lobster. He explains why the state can’t manage to fly freight from Bangor and Portland by saying that Maine only has two major roads and they both go from North to South. “We don’t even have east-west highways,” he said. “It’s pathetic.”
The airports have the runways to handle 747s, but he said, “We don’t have the transportation out of them. You have to get a special truck to go down to Boston, pick it up and bring it back.” He went on, “It’s flowers, fish, it’s everything. There are no freight offices in Portland,” he went on. “You can ship a box, but you have to take it to the counter. Where do you park your truck? It’s not even worth the hassle.” To which he added, “And now we have TSAs, search and seizure.”
TSA stands for Transportation Security Administration, and the word Security says it all. It’s avoiding the pat-down of a product that has to reach its destination in a day and alive, kicking, and fighting mad.
Since 9/11 the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] has developed a screening process for companies shipping goods. “The main purpose of this TSA approval and qualification,” William Atwood, of Spruce Head’s Atwood Lobster, said, “is for Maine lobster dealers to be able to pack lobsters in-house under certain secured conditions that guarantee there are no explosives or other harmful items that would possibly do damage to aircraft within our packed cargo.” This cargo is then dropped off at a TSA secured destination or any approved airline. The justification for TSA approval and qualification is that it will save cost in delays of shipments and in inspections by TSA inspectors.
Although TSA can process these cargoes at any time, a company that has passed the TSA requirements and certification for live perishable products can help by avoiding the overload of inspections that take place at airport locations during busy times of the day. Companies without this certification would end up with losses to the customer from missed flights and losses to the company for freight returned to Maine.
People such as lobster and seafood wholesalers and dealers must be approved and qualified, the people packing the goods must be trained, and the packing must be done in a secured area. Each dealer has to go through a transportation program. At Atwood Lobster, for instance, the packing for shipping is done in just one place. Atwood said that the people in the front office have stopped all the general flow of those who are not certified employees from entering the secured area. “This program has been tested several times by unidentified TSA employees who were stopped while attempting to enter the secured area. This was mandatory to preserve the company’s secured area with several unannounced TSA tests to see if the front office people would stop those coming in whom they don’t know.”
Atwood made clear that any trouble with this special packing of lobster could mean the end of his business. “You’re on the line to keep the quality of the employees and [keep] the public out of the place where we're packing,” he said. “We have to give reports,” he added, “and they give us special tape and seals, and stickers.” Atwood Lobster has a special number. He explained that after affixing the special stickers and tape, the specially trained packer puts a medallion on the package. When a TSA inspector waves a wand over the medallion, it comes up with a special code it can read. Atwood said, “It’s very sophisticated.”
Dealers sending smaller packages to retail customers can ship by the specialized shippers: DHL, Federal Express, or United Parcel Service. Although those companies charge more for their overnight service than commercial airlines, the dealer can pass the cost directly to the customer. Wholesale dealers cannot, and it’s not cost-effective. A lobster exporter said what might cost sixty to eighty cents per pound to ship a pound of lobster to San Francisco by commercial airlines might cost two dollars by Fed Ex.
Although wholesale dealers can ship large amounts of lobster in individual boxes that travel loose in the hold of the narrow-bodied passenger planes, shipping in boxes is not as safe as shipping in containers designed for the wide bodies of freight planes. These containers or “cans” called LDs, come in different sizes. An LD2 container holds 1,850 lbs. And LD3 holds 2,600 lbs, and a LD8 holds 3,700 lbs. of lobster.
Dealer Lee Smith, of Boston Lobster, attributes the lack of freight planes partly to the aftermath of 9/11, when air travel slowed dramatically. The airlines, facing bankruptcy, downsized their planes and sought fuel-efficient flights. “When the price of oil went up,” he said, “Delta eliminated the wide [bodied planes].
“Delta bought Northwest Airlines, and there’s been some consolidation in the industry,” Smith went on. “They were the big supplier to California. The business with the airlines is very symbiotic: we need them, they need us.” He said Delta saved money by using its big planes to fly passengers to Europe. “It saved fuel,” he said. “It wasn’t fuel efficient [flying the wide-bodied planes] to California,” and lobster dealers need to fly their product there to service the state’s many Chinese supermarkets.
“We have to play their game,” Smith said. “We must do what they tell us. We get to the airport early to meet their truck. American Airlines drives a truck down to JFK to fly them. It has to do with the container, the size that fits in the wide body”
According to a Maine dealer, one European airline, A Italia, flies in and out of Logan and carries shipments of lobster from Boston to Europe, ships lobsters to JFK twice a week, and to Logan usually twice daily.
The aggravation has led some dealers to stop shipping by air. One said he backed off when the rules changed after 9/11. Dealer Sid Look of O. W. and B. S. Look Lobster, in Jonesport, stopped eight or nine years ago after the law changed and dealers had to be certified to do what Look said he’d been doing for fifteen years. “We were so far from the airport in Boston—300 miles—by the time we put them on a truck and ran them all the way down there, if they missed the flight, we had to come all the way back.” He and others also had problems with airlines bumping containers. And as McAleney explained, “If [lobsters] miss a couple of flights, they lose quality. If we get a couple of storms, you’re really screwed.” He said he and other dealers were getting tired of it.
Because the use of narrow-bodied planes have reduced the ability to ship from Boston and because the containers belong to the airlines, which sometime charge if they’re not returned in four days, wholesalers have increasingly taken to building wooden insulated skids or pallets 40 by 48 by 60 inches tall around 50 to 60 wax boxes, each box holding 17 to 22 lbs. of lobster. The skids are easier to handle and don’t need to be returned. Wholesalers are increasingly hiring freight forwarders, the equivalent of travel agents for lobster, to handle the logistical challenges of shipping the lobster here and abroad.
A Revere, Massachusetts freight-forwarder is one of the companies that takes some of the aggravation of shipping off dealers’ shoulders. He said freight-forwarders truck the lobsters from Boston. “We’ll go to other airports where the larger aircraft exist and we buy air-freight space in volume on aircraft,” he said, adding, “International shipments now require a freight-forwarder because of all the documentation.”
Despite appearances, commercial airlines don’t set out to aggravate lobster dealers. As the Maine wholesaler explained. “They’re not in the freight business, they’re moving people and luggage, so as times goes on, it’s going to become more of the challenge. It may force it may force the hands of lobster shippers to look to the specialized shippers. “In time,” he said, “it may be the only option. If it evens the playing field, that's one thing; right now airlines are cheaper for what we do.”
The Skinny On Wide Bodies
by Sandy Dinsmore
There are two kinds of air cargo: container cargo, which is shipped by big 747s and 757s and belly cargo, which flies as extra capacity in the belly of commercial air service planes: those that take passengers and have additional capacity. According to Portland airport director Paul Bradbury, belly freight has been low because of the smaller aircraft leaving Portland. He said planes are getting larger now. The largest aircraft Portland can handle are 757s and 767s or equivalents. No wide-bodied planes fly out of Boston. They fly out of the more densely populated East Coast cities of New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, and that’s where Maine and other New England dealers must truck their live, highly perishable product to reach freight planes.
“The belly freight market was somewhat decimated over that because it just didn’t have the capacity and it became not very lucrative for the airlines out of Portland to use because they had such limited capacity.” He explained, “If you’re using a 30-, 50-, or 70-passenger plane, all the belly is used up with the passenger’s stuff. It’s not till you start to get 737s and larger that you have sufficient bally capacity to go beyond what the passengers need.”
He said even some of the newer regional jets — the 90-seaters —are starting to have belly capacity because they're getting bigger. Bradbury thinks there will be some resurgence in the ability to carry belly freight out of Portland within a year and said, “We have interest of somebody setting up that service.”
But the preponderance of airfreight shipped from Portland is via the Federal Express cargo facility. He said Fed Ex has “three to four smaller aircraft that feed the entire state to Portland. They take off in the morning. They then come back at the end of the day. Then at approximately 9:30,” he said, a large Boeing 757 ... with all of the state’s cargo leaves for Nashville, taking all the goods, such as lobster that, as Bradbury put it, “absolutely positively has to get there overnight.” That 757 drops its good in Nashville and picks up all the cargo that has to come to Maine, then lands back in Portland first thing in the morning leaving the goods ready to be distributed throughout the state.
Portland handled 11,750,000 lbs. of freight in 2009. This year by the end of October, it had handled 8,670,000 lbs. of freight. The preponderance of airfreight shipped from Portland is via the Federal Express cargo facility. Bradbury said Fed Ex has “three to four smaller aircraft that feed the entire state to Portland. They take off in the morning. They then come back at the end of the day. Then at approximately 9:30,” he said, a large Boeing 757... with all of the state’s cargo leaves for Nashville, taking all the goods, such as lobster that, as Bradbury put it, “absolutely positively has to get there overnight.” That 757 drops its good in Nashville and picks up all the cargo that has to come to Maine, then lands back in Portland first thing in the morning leaving the goods ready to be distributed throughout the state.