Cold chain on a plane: Tracking perishable air freight with cloud and IoT

Cold chain management

In perishable logistics, time is often of the essence to ensure that fresh produce, fresh florals, fish, meats, and other temperature sensitive products reach their destination while still offering the same freshness, quality, safety, and appeal for consumers. For medicines and vaccines that require constant temperature control, visibility and product movement traceability is needed. As a result, many of these goods are transported by air.

Food retailers and restaurants have long sourced perishables from around the globe. As consumer demand is driving the increasing diversification of food and produce markets, shoppers want more and better options, and they want them year around.

According to FDA estimates, approximately 15 percent of U.S. food is important, including one half of all fresh fruits, 20 percent of fresh vegetables, and 80 percent of all seafood. Miami is a leading port of entry for cut flowers and produce, along with Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta. Many outbound produce shipments leave California and Washington. This import and export trend is expected to continue its grow, with population growth being a general factor.

Getting perishable items with limited shelf lives to customers and patients presents complicated challenges, but safety, quality, and freshness are a common denominator. New York chefs may be writing premium Icelandic cod into their menus, but the fish is delayed at the airport in Keflavik. Tulips from Holland are loaded into an aircraft, but several coolers are pulled off to make weight for additional fuel.

The uncertainty inherent in products needing temperature control – combined with the challenges inherent in air transport – means that managing perishable logistics requires specific expertise to maintain the cold chain, which varies from product to product. Transporting salmon is different than moving flowers or biologics, and perishable logistics is ever evolving, as consumption patterns and regulations change. As we enter an age of biologically-based medicines, the need to monitor and control temperature sensitivity is increasing.

Regulatory efforts to control foodborne illness, including the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, and traceability efforts to aid in safety and recalls – which also appear in the pharmaceutical sector, for instance, with the Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA) —  are placing increasing pressure on businesses to modernize their supply chain in order to streamline visibility and gain control over their assets while in transit. 

Tracking temperature controlled products on board

Perishable shippers use both passenger aircraft and freighters to shorten the time it takes for goods to reach their destination, depending on the nature of the goods, market needs, margins, and preferences.

Passenger flights are generally more frequent, less expensive, and more widely available, they require adherence to tight schedules, and may get bumped due to a variety of reasons. Freighters often offer better temperature control, additional capacity, and fewer inspections, but they may fly less frequently and to fewer locations, be more costly, and may sit until they reach near capacity, placing perishables at risk.

According to IATA, global air freight demand grew by 9% in 2017, as compared with the 3.6% annual growth reported in 2016 — twice the pace of expansion in world trade (4.3%). Its performance was the strongest since the rebound from the global financial crisis in 2010.

Ocean transport has been popular for perishables with longer shelf life, but efforts to reduce fuel consumption by traveling more slowly has led some perishable commodities to return to air cargo. At the same time as there has been an increase in the volumes for perishable commodities, a shift to new, more environmentally friendly models has meant a reduction in wide body aircrafts, impacting perishable shippers who have become reliant on those routes.

Data from IATA indicates that 25% of vaccines reach their destinations degraded because of incorrect shipping conditions and that 20% are damaged during transport due to a broken cold chain. This is due to a lack of compliance, standardization, accountability, and transparency across the air transport supply chain.  

The stakes are high, not only for the food and pharmaceutical companies, but for the transportation and logistics services providers that move, store, process, and deliver their products. By 2021, according to IATA, world sales of cold-chain drugs and of biologics such as vaccines and insulin will top $396 billion, in a global bio-pharma market exceeding $1.47 trillion.

Streamlining airline clearances

Due to regulations that require inspection of cargo, the conditions of perishables are often at the mercy of what happens at the airport. Inspecting cargo takes time — and time is not on the side of perishable products that can spoil if they’re left to sit on a tarmac or in a holding area.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued regulations that began requiring 100-percent inspection of all passenger aircraft cargo, including perishables. Instead of waiting for government inspection, a number of freight forwarders subsequently attained the credentials required to inspect and certify that perishable shipments are free of devices of terrorism. However, this requires them to invest in worker training and certification, develop secure processes, and implement physical security systems. Many now have teams devoted solely to perishables who carry deep knowledge of the conditions needed for various types of commodities.

Due to the massive increase in shipment volumes, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has given the port’s air carriers authority to act on importers’ behalf, managing the entire planeload as one shipment instead of handing off clearance responsibilities to the many brokers that may be involved in a single aircraft’s payload. The carriers prepare paperwork and samplings of product to customs to make sure clearances go as smoothly as possible so goods don’t sit idle.

Cold chain monitoring

To satisfy the requirements for tracking delicate air cargo and monitoring conditions throughout every phase of every flight, more airlines, logistics companies, pharmaceutical and restaurant and food retail chains are moving to adopt visibility monitoring solutions to gain visibility and control across the supply chain. Controlant lets these stakeholders keep track of all environmental and product movement throughout the global supply chain. Shipment data, location, logger information and cold chain traceability is available at the click of a button to help monitor temperature, movement, location, and door openings, then communicate that information through a shipment’s journey.

Shippers and their logistics partners are increasingly investing in meeting visibility demands. The number of touchpoints is increasing, and the knowledge of what happens at each of those touchpoints is empowering data for stakeholders to mitigate risk, improve logistics performance, and standardize their metrics.

Being able to know exactly where their cargo is, and being able to track or monitor inventory from a smartphone, desktop, or a centralized tracking platform is critical to the next generation of services being provided. Built-in sensors, including for light, temperature, and barometric conditions monitor product conditions throughout their journey, triggering an alert if an irregular event occurs to a computer or mobile. GPS tracking lets stakeholders know when products have left the warehouse and when they have reached their final destination.

Advancements ahead

As long as consumers have an appetite for perishable products that can only be sourced internationally, and as long as patient demand continues to increase for pharmaceuticals and biologics, air cargo will continue to play a key role in the supply chain. 

Airlines and logistics professionals transporting temperature-sensitive cargo, including perishable food and pharmaceutical products, must be kept within a specific range of environmental conditions throughout the transport lifecycle from when the cargo accepts the goods until they are delivered. In turn, airlines and logistics partners must keep accurate record to show that the conditions have been maintained. Professionals need to stay cool under the pressure of moving perishable goods quickly and safely through agile and flexible cold chains.

Having a temperature monitoring solution that automatically records and captures this critical data so that a full audit trail is available on demand, transmitting log details and removing the need for manual data entry will improve data accuracy and integrity, is necessary in the context of the increasing cold chain demands. Electronic capture reduces the potential for human error. A SaaS service and subscription model helps keep costs down, while driving ecosystem collaboration among airlines, logistics professionals, and clients, enabling airlines to quickly respond to constantly changing air cargo industry requirements.

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Controlant is a leading provider of seamlessly automated cold chain monitoring and global visibility solutions that help ensure the freshness and integrity of temperature-sensitive products — from their source to the final destination. For more information, request a demo.

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