Behind the Scenes – Air Cargo Transport For Perishable Goods

Over the past couple of years, you might have found it difficult to source your favourite fruits or berries, a particular type of fish you like, or even a bunch of flowers to help celebrate a special occasion. The reason behind this could be because of three little words: perishable air cargo.

Since the onset of the pandemic, perishable air cargo that would normally have been transported as belly cargo were affected by the grounding of most European airline fleets. No belly space, no cargo space for perishable goods.

Perishable air cargo refers to goods that are shipped by air because of their time or temperature-sensitive nature. The need to be transported from the supplier to the market – or a cold chain storage facility – quickly, and sensitively to maintain the product’s quality and freshness.

The air freight transport of fresh fruit and vegetables will require a different set of packing conditions than those used for fresh fish or frozen vegetables. The type of cargo will come with many demands: does it require a controlled temperature, does it need to be handled differently than regular cargo, or even does the product need specialist freezer equipment to avoid contamination? With the help of specialist perishable air cargo agents, we’re going to try to answer these questions.

But before we look at all of the conditions that must come together to successfully ship perishable air cargo, let’s take a look at the following question.

What are perishable goods?

Perishable goods refer to products that are usually both time- and temperature-sensitive. This category of goods needs to be delivered in the fastest and safest manner to ensure they arrive in a fit-for-purpose condition. Products like seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables, and cut flowers have a very short shelf-life making air cargo the preferred mode of transport.

However, using air cargo for perishable goods comes with its own sets of conditions. The type of goods being shipped will determine how they should be handled, moved, and stored during the whole transit process. Transporting flowers on a plane is a completely different process than transporting frozen seafood. Flowers, fruits and vegetables are usually shipped at a low temperature to halt the ripening or wilting process. Whereas, seafood and some meats need to be transported frozen to ensure they don’t pose a health risk to the end consumer.

One factor that needs to be considered when investigating the process of air transport for perishable goods is the final cost of the product can be influenced by external forces such as skyrocketing fuel prices.

Types of perishables

Once upon a time, people waited patiently for their favourite foods and other luxuries to come into season; berries in summer, nuts in autumn, turkeys at Christmas, and daffodils in spring. With the rise in rapid air cargo transportation, every season is just a plane trip away.

People are living healthier lifestyles and demand fresher produce that may not be available locally. As the demand for fresh produce increased, the supply chains that feed the market grew more streamlined. Producers, ground transporters and air freight companies came together to solve and streamline any logistics problems that might exist, and to help ensure that air cargo for perishable goods would remain the best and most profitable mode of transport.

So, what foods are transported by air (but it’s not only foods that need urgent shipping, right)?

Some of the types of perishable goods commonly transported by air.

  • Meat and meat-based products
  • Fruits and Vegetables
  • Seafood
  • Shellfish
  • Frozen foods
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Fresh cut flowers
  • Plants
  • Confectionary
  • Pharmaceutical products
  • Some cosmetic products

Each type of perishable goods has its own packaging and storage rules and regulations that are governed and controlled by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Say it with flowers

Weddings, birthdays, Valentine’s Day, or any other occasion that requires celebration can best be expressed with fresh-cut flowers. The world, it seems, is obsessed with fresh flowers – in 2019 the global fresh cut flower market was valued at approximately €30-billion – that means a lot of cargo flights.

When it comes to buying cut flowers, the United States and the United Kingdom are the clear winners. However, the largest growers of fresh flowers are the Netherlands, Ecuador, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, none of which are overly convenient to their respective markets. That means that flowers, to find their way into vases all over the world, need to be transported by specialist cargo companies who understand the business inside-out.

Because of the flowers’ short lives, the ready for market product needs to be shipped in tried and trusted conditions, making air cargo the only viable option.

The best way to ship fresh flowers and other perishables

For obvious reasons, the quality of cut flowers is defined by their ‘freshness’ and their ‘vase life’. Any factor that might affect those qualities will damage their value – and the reputation of the grower – on the open market.

One of the factors that can adversely influence the quality of the products is temperature fluctuations. For that reason, cut flower producers employ both ground and air transport that are perfectly matched to avoid any dramatic temperature changes. Additionally, excessive handling during connections must be avoided at all costs to retain the product’s premium quality. Experienced cargo charter companies understand the fresh flower market and many cargo operators have specialist departments dedicated solely to the transport of fresh flowers.

From fresh lobsters to mature cheese, depending on the type of perishable product that you want to ship, the packaging and shipping details may vary greatly. It’s a simple fact that some goods have a very limited shelf life, some are fragile, while others can easily handle the rigours of air cargo transport. For whatever type of perishable cargoes, you want to ship by air, the IATA have issued a full set of guidelines covering packaging, labelling, handling, as well as all of the other information that will help ensure successful transportation of any perishable product.

Despite the myriad of rules and regulations, conditions and concerns governing the transport of perishables by air freight, the easiest way to overcome these obstacles is by using an experienced and knowledgeable air cargo charter company.

A professional charter company can help you take the pain out of the numerous responsibilities faced by shippers every day.

For example, the responsibilities of the shipper may include:

  • Declaration of the consignment to be shipped
  • Advice on bookings, specialist handling instructions of storage instructions
  • Obtain all permits, licences, and any relevant CITES documentation
  • Creating industry-standard identification labels
  • Provide a primary person of contact who should be available 24/7
  • Ensure that staff are aware of and fully trained in their responsibilities
  • Terminate ownership once delivery is complete

In the same as shippers have responsibilities, carriers also have a duty of care and responsibilities to ensure the safe delivery of the perishables to be transported.

When shipping perishables the carrier should consider:

  • All restrictions and regulations that can delay delivery
  • Are all communications accurate and correct?
  • Have you addressed the safety of the goods, crew, aircraft, or employees’ health?
  • Will the goods arrive in time?
  • Has enough cargo space been booked?
  • And are there any special handling requirements?
  • Are there any segregation rules concerning the cargo to be shipped?
  • Check that the shipper has completed all documentation and permits
  • Has the shipper provided all accurate and necessary information?
  • Have all safety considerations been met?
  • Do you have a backup plan in place should anything go wrong?
  • Have all the necessary customs obligations been fulfilled?

Other considerations for perishable air cargo


What’s the most important factor to consider when shipping perishables? If you ask any experienced cargo charter operator with a speciality in perishables, they’ll give you the same answer – good communication.

To make sure that there is no deterioration in the quality of the shipped goods, all of the interested parties must work as a single unit to keep cold chain logistics running fault-free. By working as a united force, shippers and carriers who understand each other’s working practices, and the people behind them, improve the chances of a successful operation time after time.


Knowing where your perishables are at any given time is especially important for cargo with a short shelf-life. That’s why good cargo operators employ RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology to monitor the location of the goods when necessary and keep all interested parties informed of its progress.

Tracking and traceability are vitally important in the food industry should any health issues arise at a later date. Focused and documented tracking can offer a paper trail for investigators in the case of food poisoning or any other health-related concern. The traceability provided by tracking can create a virtual map and timeline from the point of production to its final location.

How to pack your perishables

While your cargo operator can give you all the exact information needed to match the aircraft type, here are some of the basics that you might need to help you understand the complexities of packing for perishables.

  • The packaging needs to be flexible to account for changes in altitude (air pressure)
  • The packaging must be able to maintain internal temperatures and accommodate external temperatures
  • It should be sturdy enough to stack and allow for handling on the ground and in the air

The most common types of packaging used for shipping perishables by air freight are the following:

  • Expanded polystyrene packaging
  • Rigid plastic packaging
  • Flexible plastic packaging
  • Fibreboard packaging
  • Wooden crating or packaging
  • Metal cans and canisters
  • Vacuum – or modified atmosphere – packaging

Regardless of the type of packaging used, space for labelling is vitally important. Labels should include directions such as ‘This Way Up’, ‘Urgent’, ‘Fragile’, or ‘Fresh Produce’. And remember, some perishable goods can be shipped in a double packaging solution – an inner box within an outer box – and the labelling should match whichever system is used.

Also, other conditions may be necessary depending on the country or region. For fruits, vegetables, and flowers, some countries mandate the use of pest netting to completely cover the entire shipping pallet and exclude pests that may try to travel with the cargo.

Ask the experts

There is no end to the questions that will arise during perishable goods shipping. And, while the IATA have all of the information detailed in the cargo guidelines handbook, an experienced air cargo handler is sure to have the answers directly to hand and will have a practical knowledge of any eventually that may arise and require attention.

One last piece of advice for anyone planning on shipping perishable goods by air cargo is to build a relationship with a cargo operator with a proven track record and with the experience to offer all of the advice and guidance you might ever need.