As American Airlines passengers tilt back their seats and prepare to settle into their flights, they’re probably not thinking about what’s traveling through the skies under their seats in the belly of the plane.
Luggage, they might venture. But on any given flight, far more than suitcases is likely traveling below them.
Along with the aircraft parts, cell phones, computers and computer chips, medical equipment, and medicines — the backbone of trade in South Florida — there are some decidedly more exotic and unusual cargoes that are shipped through Miami International Airport.
Think live Florida lobsters destined for China, monkeys, blueberries from Chile, gold artifacts, stacks of currency, tissue and blood samples, and tropical fish in super-oxygenated water. American has even transported lions, cheetahs and baby sharks in the belly of passenger planes.
Cargo carriers such as Tampa Air Cargo, LAN Cargo, DHL Express, and FedEx fly even bigger animals, including manatees, race horses and polo ponies. Hyenas, jaguars, a variety of fish and fowl, Gila monsters, and goats also have traveled on all-cargo flights.
And remember that film Snakes on a Plane? King cobras — albeit well-secured king cobras — also have been among the high fliers over Miami.
While most live animals are moved around the United States by truck or rail, zoos and aquariums, owners of race and show horses and exotic pet dealers often choose air cargo to minimize travel time and reduce the stress on animals — despite the higher cost.
For animals traveling internationally, air cargo is typically the best alternative. And Miami is the second busiest U.S. airport, after Los Angeles, for transporting live wild animals, according to Sandy Cleva, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement at MIA.
“We see wild animals come through as cargo pretty much every day,” said Cleva. “We get reptiles, fish, mammals, birds. Someone imported a hyena as a pet.”
Cleva is part of a team at MIA that includes 10 wildlife inspectors and a wildlife detector dog. They keep busy enforcing federal air cargo regulations on shipping live animals, checking for disease and watching for attempts to import or export endangered species.
“We have to clear the export and import of all animals,” Cleva added.
Over the last year, she said, Miami inspectors have seen jaguars that were confiscated in Panama and imported by a U.S. zoo, a black rhinoceros being shipped to a zoo in Mexico, and an Andean condor traveling to Colombia for release into the wild.
The Noah’s Ark of creatures passing through MIA also has included a giant tortoise, golden poison arrow dart frogs, a blue-ringed octopus, sun fish, a hammerhead shark, red-bellied piranha and giant isopods — crustaceans related to shrimp and crabs.
American also does a brisk business in moving pets — sending some 2,200 around the world each month.
But horses, cattle, pigs and goats get to fly too, thanks to Alex Allesandrini, co-owner of Miami-based Worldwide Livestock Services. “About 80 percent of what we ship are horses, 10 percent pigs and about 10 percent goats, sheep and cows,” he said.
“A lot of polo ponies come in to compete in Wellington from Argentina, Ecuador, Chile and Uruguay. We get a lot of work from the racetracks,” he said.
Worldwide moves about 11,000 horses through Miami every year, Allessandrini said, including jumpers, dressage and event team horses that spend six months in the U.S. and six months in Europe.
The company also ships zoo animals and exotics. It has its own warehouse and specialized stalls for shipping the animals and uses several carriers — Martinair Cargo, FedEx, DHL Express, Polar Air Cargo, LAN Cargo and Tampa Air Cargo.
Plantation-based DHL Express was involved in one of the more unusual animal-moving operations in recent years.
Last fall, it moved five manatees between Florida and the Midwest. As part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rescue and rehabilitation program, sick, injured or orphaned manatees recuperate in critical care centers such as Miami Seaquarium, and then, when they are healthy enough, are moved to other participating centers to put on weight.
On Oct. 11, the courier service flew two rehabilitated sea cows (Pixie and Wheezy) that had been living at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and another (Woodstock) that had been staying at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden to Miami. All three were scheduled to be released into the wild after acclimation at Florida facilities.
The next day, two manatees were flown to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport from Miami for care at the Ohio zoos.
“Moving 5,100 pounds of manatees halfway across the country requires a lot of planning,” said Joe Collopy, regional sales manager at the DHL Express Americas hub in Cincinnati.
He was the manager in charge of the move, which DHL dubbed “the sea cow shuffle.”
The manatees traveled in specially designed padded crates with open tops and were accompanied by a zoo representative for their flights aboard DHL’s Boeing 767 freighters.
Care also was taken to keep the sea cows as far away from jet engine noise as possible so they wouldn’t become stressed, and they traveled in a section where the temperature was maintained at 70 degrees because manatees cannot tolerate low temperatures..
“This was a very complicated process,” Collopy said. “but it’s a very nice, refreshing moment when it all comes together.”
In August, Zoo Miami used American Airlines to ship a harpy eagle — the national bird of Panama — from Miami to the Harpy Eagle Center at Panama’s Summit Zoo.
The last harpy at the zoo in Panama died, and the young eagle, named “Panama” by Zoo Miami, is being used in a breeding program.
“She had her own little first-class section in the pressurized cargo hold,” said Ron Magill, communications director at Zoo Miami.
American Airlines also brought in the Miami zoo’s original pair of Komodo dragons and flew two cheetahs from Johannesburg to New York City to Miami.
“It was a 16-hour flight and they were on a tight deadline,” Magill added. “They bent over backwards for us.’’
What has American Airlines excited right now is the Florida-China lobster connection. Some 22,000 pounds of live lobster — packed on beds of seaweed and cold packs in foam containers surrounded by heavy-duty cardboard — are now moving daily from Miami International Airport to Shanghai.
It’s a business that didn’t even exist until the summer of 2012.
“A little over a year ago a Chinese businessman living in the United States walked in the office and said, ‘I’d like to ship lobsters to Shanghai. Can you help me?’ ’’ said Carmen Taylor, managing director for American’s Southeast U.S., Caribbean and Latin American sales.
As China becomes more affluent, young, sophisticated consumers are seeking out imported seafood — for status and taste.
American had never shipped live lobsters to Asia before so it had to develop standard operating procedures for lobster traffic. Each container holds 30 to 40 Florida lobsters, and the size of the containers dictates they must move aboard wide-body jets.
“It’s a premium product that requires premium shipping,’’ said Taylor.
When the lobsters arrive in Los Angeles for shipment to China, there’s a cargo operations team waiting for them at the gate. The lobster containers are removed first and a special cart takes them directly to the next plane leaving for Shanghai.
The live lobsters generally are in Chinese markets within five hours of their arrival in Shanghai, said Taylor.
The cushion for completing the whole operation is about 40 hours. So far, said Taylor, there haven’t been any claims for dead lobsters.
But it requires American to be nimble. Last year there was a delay in Chicago during a Miami-Chicago-Shanghai flight that would have put the lobsters in jeopardy.
“We flew them back to Miami to replenish the dry ice and gel packs and the next morning they were sent out on another flight,’’ said Taylor.
Tracking the movement of cargo, such as the live lobsters, can provide important clues as to changing consumer tastes and growing affluence in markets around the world.
Right now, there’s a brisk trade in tropical fish and specimen fish that arrive from Lima, Costa Rica and Brazil in plastic bags full of oxygenated water that are packed in foam containers.
From Miami, the fish are shipped to pet stores across the United States, to Europe and increasingly to Asia where national aquariums and private collections are gaining in popularity. American has even shipped live sea turtles as well as baby sharks that are 4 to 5 feet long.
“The aquarium business is exploding in Japan and China,’’ said Nathaniel Miller, who works for PHS (Perishable Handling Specialists), a division of Cargo Airport Services that keeps customers’ shipments at the right temperature at the American Airlines cargo terminal in Miami.
Not quite as wild but certainly colorful, flowers are a stalwart of the air cargo business at MIA. Some 40,000 boxes of flowers containing millions of blooms arrive daily in Miami — the flower import capital of the United States.
Different blooms require different care. Roses and carnations, mostly from Colombia and Ecuador, must be kept cool, while tropical plants thrive in heat and humidity. A sign outside the refrigerated area at the AA terminal adjacent to MIA warns: “No tropical flowers in the cooler — They love the Miami heat.”
While some of the air-traveling flowers are used in bouquets and arrangements in South Florida, Miami is merely a transit point for other blooms that are flown across the United States, on to the big European flower marketplace in Amsterdam, Japan’s flower center in Fukuoka, and even to Shanghai where flowers will be in demand for the Chinese New Year that begins Jan. 31.
Some cargoes are seasonal: Right now it’s raspberry and blueberry season in Chile, the Chilean cherry season starts soon , and the lobster season lasts from August to March 31. But other food shipments such as frozen salmon filets from Chile represent year-around revenue for the airlines.
Starting the second week of February, it will be all about seeds as corn and grain seeds from the Argentine pampas move through AA’s 200,000-square-foot terminal en route to the Midwest, said Taylor.
Miami is the largest cargo hub in the AA system, and it handles about 700,000 pounds of goods, excluding mail, daily.
On peak days, it moves as much as one million pounds of cargo. “We see a lot of million-pound days here,’’ said Dennis Wagner, managing director of Miami cargo for American.
Although the cargo business accounts for less than 5 percent of AA’s revenue, “it represents a much larger percent when it comes to profitability,’’ said Taylor. “In the past few years, without the profitability of cargo, we would have lost a lot more money.’’
Walking through the AA cargo terminal is an instant lesson in geography and consumer demand.
“It’s really a very interesting world, isn’t it?’’ remarked Taylor as she pointed out everything from okra headed to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to organic whole bean coffee from Brazil during a recent tour of the cargo terminal.
Inside a cooler were fresh fish from Ecuador destined for Los Angeles, Colombian herbs going out on a flight to Toronto that night and foliage that had just arrived from São José do Rio Preto, Brazil.
“Here we have Peruvian asparagus from Lima going tonight to London,’’ said Miller, the perishable handling specialist, as he surveyed three pallets loaded with 18,000 to 19,000 pounds of asparagus.
Miller said he used to love asparagus, but now, “just the smell of it reminds me of work.’’
Among other temperature-sensitive shipments are biologicals, including blood for transfusions, blood and tissue samples for tests, and corneas for transplants that travel via priority parcel service. Some medicines and other pharmaceutical supplies also must be temperature controlled.
“These are critical shipments that are very time- and temperature-sensitive,’’ said Taylor
Not all unusual cargo is perishable or alive. But some inert shipments still need special attention.
Take the stacks of bank notes that move to and from Latin America. They require high security and are accompanied by armored trucks that stand by on the tarmac until a plane’s wheels are up.
The American Airlines terminal has a special high-value cage of floor-to-ceiling wire mesh where valuable cargo is placed when in transit. Companies often send their own guards that stand by while such cargoes are in the cage.
Right before Art Basel, the cage was filled with artwork.
Another high-value cargo that frequently flies in the skies above Miami is gold. South Florida is a hub for the nation’s gold trade and in 2012, $18 billion worth of gold moved into and out of the Miami Customs District. Most of the gold comes in from mines in Latin America and then is trans-shipped to Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and the Dominican Republic.
The gold generally is transported in bars, but last fall American Airlines carried gold of a different sort. It transported 200 priceless gold artifacts from Colombia’s Bogotá Gold Museum to London where the antiquities are being displayed at the “Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in Ancient Colombia” exhibition at the British Museum.
“There were a lot of escorts for that shipment,’’ said Taylor. “There were special security procedures at every airport the artifacts moved through.”
The show runs through March and when it’s over, the gold artifacts will once again be shipped through Miami on their way home.