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Valentine's Day flowers, other high-end merchandise travel in style

| Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

MIAMI — If Cupid were to have a home, it would be Miami International Airport.

It's there that 85 percent of imported flowers — including most Valentine's Day roses — arrive in the United States, many in the bellies of passenger planes. The roses, carnations, hydrangeas, sunflowers and other varieties are rushed by forklift from planes to chilled warehouses and then onto refrigerated trucks or other planes and eventually delivered to florists, gas stations and grocery stores across the country.

Most airline passengers focus on what's visible to them, such as the amount of legroom and the space in the overhead bins. Few think about what's beneath the cabin floor. There's fresh Alaskan salmon, this season's latest luxury clothing from Milan and plenty of Peruvian asparagus heading to London. Then there are the more unusual items like human corneas, the occasional live cheetah or lion, and large shipments of gold and diamonds.

“We always joke that a passenger gets themselves to the next flight while a bit of cargo does not,” said Jim Butler, president of cargo operations at American Airlines.

The biggest problem this Valentine's Day might be the final few miles of the journey. A snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast has made some suburban roads difficult for local delivery drivers.

For passenger airlines such as American, cargo is a small but increasingly important part of their business. New jets are built with more freight space, and the airlines are adding nonstop international routes popular with shippers.

That provides plenty of room for flowers.

Valentine's Day is a big day for flowers, topped only by Mother's Day, and cargo teams work extra hours ahead of both to ensure on-time deliveries.

“There's a spark in the air while loading these,” said Andy Kirschner, director of cargo sales for Delta Air Lines. “You know this is going to loved ones.”

Worldwide, airlines and air shippers carried about 52 million tons of freight representing $6 trillion worth of goods last year, according to the International Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group. That was up 1.4 percent from the prior year. The amount of air cargo is expected to climb 17 percent in the next five years.

Shipping by air costs about 10 times as much as by sea, said David G. Ross, a transportation analyst at Stifel. So, plane rides are reserved for trendy high-end fashion items, the hottest electronics or perishable foods and flowers.

“If it's the new product on the block and everybody wants it, then you can ship it by air,” Ross said.

Most non-perishables, such as T-shirts, jeans and mass-produced flat-screen TVs, travel by ship.

“If you have a low price point on it, you don't have room for expensive transportation,” Ross said.

That's been the philosophy of many corporations coming out of the recession — and has made for rough going for the air cargo business. Low interest rates factored into companies choosing to take a few extra weeks to ship products to the marketplace by sea.

As a result, air cargo rates have been depressed. Air shippers worldwide took in $59 billion in revenue last year, down 12 percent from two years ago.

For the biggest airlines — American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines — cargo accounted for just 2.3 percent of their overall revenue last year, down from 2.5 percent in 2012 and 2.8 percent in 2011. United's cargo revenue fell 13.4 percent last year, while Delta's fell 5.4 percent. American's remained virtually flat, thanks in part to its dominance on South American routes. It's the largest carrier in Miami.

The airlines don't break out cargo costs but the side business is said to be profitable. They already have the jets and are paying the pilots, and they fill planes with enough passengers to cover their expenses. Plus, there's plenty of space next to the passenger luggage in a wide-body jet like the Boeing 777.

“It's incremental revenue. You're already paying for the airplane to go,” says Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, the trade group for shippers. Plus, “freight doesn't complain like passengers do at times.”

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