Reefer shortage: perishable shippers turn to air freight solutions

Even though air freight rates are soaring, shipping by air has never been so appealing.

Covid-19 measures and the consequent creation of bottlenecks in ports worldwide led to severe disruptions in supply chains, which resulted in a shortage of 20ft and 40ft sea containers. In particular, as a result of a disproportionate rise in demand and because shipping lines privilege dry cargo over reefer containers, these unprecedented circumstances have had a disastrous impact on the reefer sector.

The shortage of reefers, a growing phenomenon that for the most part impacts perishable food shippers, is further aggravated by shipping lines that have grown into the habit of carrying general cargo in unplugged reefers to address the short supply of dry containers.

In order to avoid deterioration and significant spoilage of perishable goods caused by congestion at terminals and vessel delays, produce shippers tend to consider a wide range of solutions, from switching the focus to domestic markets to taking advantage of airfreights for express deliveries. However, despite the latter being a winning, life-saving solution for businesses and markets worldwide, a large-scale reposition from ocean carriers to airfreight is definitely off the table due to exceptionally high air freight rates and the scarce availability of air freight capacity.

Although a substantial portion of fruit, vegetables, and other perishable foods usually travels by air, it is important to keep in mind that producers and packers of low-value goods can’t afford such an expensive mode of transportation without negatively impacting final consumer prices, and therefore need to limit shipping by air to essential commodities.

All things considered, it is hard to foresee a drastic change to the current reefer container shortage. As long as the global pandemic keeps on hindering supply chains, perishable food shippers will still need to compete for reefer availability, and Covid-19 vaccines distribution will not make this challenge any easier. In the meantime, as long as reefer capacity remains tight and keeps altering the global market, air-shipping needs to be taken into account both by perishable shippers and airlines, which can take advantage of this situation to tackle the effects of a drastic drop in passengers.

Article by Susanna Belleggia.


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