At the Miami International Airport (MIA) Cargo Hub, Avianca Cargo convened industry partners and members of the press to showcase the impressive logistics required to transport flowers from South America to Miami -the nation’s main flower import hub.
This busy flower season also marked a significant milestone in the airline’s history, which reached 50 years of operations, expertly transporting flowers and other types of cargo.
On the Flight Line
The highly synchronized operation that placed an Airbus A330-243F on the tarmac at KMIA began several hours earlier. During the middle of the night in fact, when Avianca Cargo’s staff at El Dorado International Airport (BOG) in Bogota, Colombia, expertly loaded the A330 freighter with pallets of fresh roses and other flowers bound for our morning tarmac encounter. Along with that flight, several other A330’s of Avianca Cargo’s freighter fleet crisscrossed the Caribbean with much of the USA’s supply of belle fleurs.
Avianca Cargo’s CEO, Gabriel Oliva, expanded on the challenging nature of transporting time and temperature-sensitive cargo. “The nature of the flower industry is seasonal. To meet demand for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, the two largest events of the year for flower transport, we must plan carefully. During peak seasons, the industry multiplies itself by two or three fold and we must be prepared.”
Oliva continued, “We are very happy to surpass our own records. We have geared our brains toward high utilization of our aircraft. On occasion, we utilized third party capacity to increase operations. This year was no different. We prepared our modern aircraft fleet and added third party capacity to provide the best possible service to the industry. Capacity continues to increase in other areas such as warehousing and ramp capabilities to ensure end-to-end process visibility.”
In 1973, under the name Transportes Aéreos Mercantiles Panamericanos – Tampa Cargo S.A. the airline began transporting flowers to the United States with a Douglas DC-6. The propellers quickly gave way to jet engines as the airline adopted the Boeing 707 in the late ‘70s and the Douglas DC-8 in the late ‘80s. Later on, the airline relied on the B767 until they integrated A330 freighters and continued expansion plans based on this model.
Modernization and Sustainability
Along with the growth of fleet and capacity, Avianca Cargo also evolved several facets of its business operation. Under the leadership of Mr. Oliva, the airline has made significant commitments to improve sustainability and reduce waste. Avianca Cargo recently became the first carrier in the region to receive IATA CEIV certification.
Oliva commented on the airline’s sustainability efforts. “We are always striving to achieve the highest industry standards. Sustainability plays a big role in our current strategy and receiving the first CIEV certification in the America’s allowed us to align our efforts with these very high quality standards. These standards tie into our sustainability practices. We constantly evaluate how we transport perishables and flowers to ensure that we employ efficient and reusable materials whenever possible to reduce waste. There are additional areas that are being explored to improve sustainability.”
As the flowers that arrived from Bogota on the Airbus freighter entered Avianca Cargo’s massive cold storage warehouse, the grand scale of the operation became evident by hive-like activity. With skill and precision, forklifts organized heavy loads and delivered them gracefully into security areas (CBP) and into awaiting containers.
For Avianca Cargo, it’s business as usual, considering the flower business represents 40% of the total volume transported by the airline every year. From Colombia and Ecuador, approximately 18,000 tons of flowers were transported by Avianca Cargo this season, requiring approximately 300 flights, Oliva concluded.
The Blooming Partnership Between Cargo Carriers and MIA
As the facility tour progressed, it reached a large CBP screening room, where United States Customs and Border Protection agents regularly inspect thousands of boxes of flower bouquets looking for agricultural threats and banned substances. In this setting, Aviation Marketing Section Chief at MIA, Dimitrios “Jimmy” Nares, provided valuable insights about the airport’s plans to increase cargo handling capacity.
Nares pointed out that the previous three years had been record years for cargo at the airport. Nares noted that 2022 numbers were 18% higher than 2020, placing the year just slightly below those of 2021. He added, “our current capacity is about 3 million tons of cargo and in recent years we’ve reached 2.75 to 2.8 million tons. The challenge we face is keeping pace with the forecasted growth of air cargo. To accomplish this, we must build more facilities.”
“Because of the way our airport is positioned with regard to the city and the highways, we are basically surrounded and don’t have exceeding amounts of extra land where we can easily expand. An innovative solution was proposed from the public sector to fund the construction of what we now call the VICC or Vertical Integrated Cargo Community. The VICC project seeks to develop a five-story state-of-the-art building that is fully integrated and features the latest technology. When the facility is completed, we could more than double our current cargo capacity and help the airport meet demand for ten to fifteen years to come. It’s also important to note that the VICC will not only be for perishables but for dry cargo as well. With the rise of eCommerce, the fully integrated and automated facility will provide a big advantage over other facilities. We expect construction to begin by the end of this year or the
beginning of 2024.”
According to recent statistics released by MIA, every Valentine’s Day season from January 1 to February 15, an astonishing 89% of flowers imported into the USA come through MIA, making it the nation’s gateway for flower imports. Nares commented, “MIA has close to 100 airline carriers. 58 are passenger airlines that also carry belly cargo and 42 carry cargo only.”
Nares continued, “our geographic position has helped us become a gateway for exports, mainly perishables, to and from Latin America and the Caribbean. We have established a very strong network for flowers with 13 freight airlines servicing Colombia and Ecuador, the region’s main producers. Our airport has federal agencies inspecting on site, to expedite throughput and processing of flowers. Last but not least, our large temperature-controlled facilities have become a critical ingredient in our success with flower transport.”
Asocolflores, Colombia’s largest association of flower exporters attended the event. The association has worked closely with Avianca Cargo since its creation and serendipitously celebrates 50 years of operations this year. The organization is responsible for more than 80 percent of the flower exports from Colombia. The association’s representative, Javier Mesa, noted that “Asocolflores helps the industry to develop markets. We have around 40,000 workers affiliated with Sello Verde seal, developed in Colombia and Ecuador. This ensures ongoing sustainability in the business.
Colombia has 9000 hectares of flowers and 4,200 are under sustainability seals. Additionally, we employ more than 200,000 workers, 110,00 directly and 90,000 indirectly. All workers receive benefits required by the Colombian government.” Mesa added, “80% of flowers grown in Colombia are flown to the USA with 20% going to different countries. Asocolflores is a main player in the agricultural sector in Colombia, representing almost 11% of the GDP in the agricultural sector, and 0.7% of the country’s total GDP.”
As Avianca Cargo gears up for Mother’s Day, its next operational peak, we are certain that the airline is well positioned to become the leading player in the segment. With capable leadership, a growing fleet and strong relationships with its industry partners and stakeholders, Avianca Cargo is poised to soar even higher in the next 50 years.