Each Alaska Airlines flight from Hawaii represents a puzzle solved by Alaska Air Cargo teams. One Boeing 737 might hold 200-pound boxes of the islands’ freshest fish bound for markets on the East Coast, alongside a hundred boxes of fragrant basil and crates carrying the pets of military families relocating to new homes. Another might carry island-grown clam seed headed to Pacific Northwest shellfish beds and delicate tropical flowers en route to Disney World in Orlando. All shipments must find their place next to bags of outbound mail and passengers’ luggage.
It’s a three-dimensional game of Tetris solved in just an hour, repeated multiple times each day throughout the islands. When an Alaska Airlines flight reaches its gate in Honolulu, Kahului, Kona or Lihue, cargo teams have less than 60 minutes to unload the shipments from the mainland – often bringing in building supplies for Hawaii homes and retail goods headed to local shops – and then efficiently restock the aircraft with outward-bound perishable goods that sustain Hawaii’s economy.
Over the past year, this daily puzzle has grown exponentially larger and more complex. When the pandemic limited all carriers’ flights in and out of Hawaii last spring, demand for cargo space on Alaska Airlines’ flights to Seattle skyrocketed as freight forwarders took advantage of Alaska’s connections to cities across the country. And even when flight service began returning throughout the islands last October, demand for Alaska’s services remained high. Per flight, Alaska carried five times more cargo out of Hawaii in December 2020 than the previous December. Over the entire year, the cargo teams handled a 70% increase in outbound shipments – much of it Hawaii-grown produce and seafood.
“We had been used to one to two carts per flight, which is relatively simple to fit,” says Kelsey Rollo, Alaska Air Cargo’s station contract services lead in Honolulu. “Suddenly we had maybe eight carts. It took a lot of coordination between our cargo team and our ramp loading team to learn how to make everything fit in an efficient and safe operation.”
The teams knew their service was vital to sustaining businesses and residents, especially during such a challenging year. “These boxes shipped anywhere from Hawaii all the way to the East Coast,” Kelsey says. “It was a pretty neat thing to be a part of an operation that provided necessities all around the country.”
CFI’s choice for seamless East Coast connections and cold-chain expertise
Last year, freight forwarders and direct shippers moved 2 million pounds of perishables, primarily seafood and produce, out of Hawaii on Alaska Air Cargo. Fish, herbs, avocados and other fresh produce now fly Alaska to 30-plus cities across North America, including JFK, Orlando and Vancouver, B.C. While the reduction of available flights during the pandemic prompted new customers to choose Alaska, longtime customers point to the advantages that bring them back year after year.
Commodity Forwarders Inc. has been a partner of Alaska Air Cargo for decades and began shipping perishables in and out of Hawaii on Alaska more than a dozen years ago. “Alaska is really our premier carrier for a lot of bulk traffic in seafood,” says Ryan Owens, CFI’s regional manager for Hawaii. “The East Coast purchases quite a bit of fish coming out of Hawaii, and Alaska offers very good connections directly out of Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles to the East Coast markets that we ship to.”
Fish, herbs, avocados and other fresh produce now fly Alaska to 30-plus cities across North America
Those seamless connections – getting from Kona to Boston with a single stop in San Diego or Seattle – make all the difference for fresh seafood. “It comes down to this: Am I getting what I need for my seafood customers?” says Carol Olney, CFI station supervisor in Kona. “On Alaska, I am.”
Alaska Air Cargo’s decades of expertise moving seafood and other perishables shows throughout its network, which preserves the cold chain from origin to destination, Ryan says. “As forwarders, it’s an advantage to have a carrier that really understands the need to have freight put into chill upon arrival and handled properly on the planes to avoid damage,” he says, adding that Alaska’s teams regularly take the initiative to ask for more details about the type of seafood in a shipment so they can give it the best care in transport. “We’re not exactly sure where all the magic happens internally, but we know that our seafood freight keeps getting to where we need it to on time and it’s handled safely,” Ryan says.
Lynden’s choice for outer-island connections and customer service
More than 2 million pounds of consumer goods arrive in Hawaii on Alaska Air Cargo each year – including during the recent pandemic year. The shipments supply local clothing stores, bring bath and kitchen fixtures for new homes, and carry parts for auto body shops. Products are often ordered “just-in-time” so Hawaii businesses don’t need to stockpile a large inventory.
Many of these goods are shipped to the islands by Lynden, whose Seattle office is just a mile from Alaska Airlines’ headquarters. Lynden’s partnership with Alaska Air Cargo stretches back decades with both companies moving cargo between the Pacific Northwest and the state of Alaska. When Alaska Airlines began flight service to Hawaii in 2007, Lynden was among the first freight forwarders to jump on board.
“Alaska Airlines has a good perspective on a location like Hawaii because of all the years of experience up in Alaska,” says Kirk Schweikart, who oversees Lynden’s Seattle freight forwarding operations. He points out that both states depend on a consistent influx of consumer goods to run their businesses. “The states have a lot of things in common and one of them is your general consumer has a higher logistics IQ than the people in the lower 48,” he says. “They know when the boats arrive, they know when the airplanes get in, they know who’s moving the frequency of flights.”
“Alaska Airlines has a good perspective on a location like Hawaii because of all the years of experience up in Alaska” – Kirk Schweikart
Alaska’s nonstop flights from the West Coast into the Big Island, Kauai and Maui are a big draw for Lynden’s customers, Kirk says, allowing Lynden to bypass extra connections in Honolulu. “In the cargo world, the less you have to handle it, the less expensive it is to move it,” he says.
And when flight service has been impacted by challenges unique to the islands – such as winter headwinds across the Pacific and last year’s months-long pandemic lockdown in Hawaii – Alaska Air Cargo’s commitment to communications with customers has been critical to keeping cargo shipments flying smoothly, Lynden representatives say.
James Bisho, who oversees Lynden’s Los Angeles freight forwarding operations, relies on regular conversations with his Alaska Air Cargo sales manager, Michael Yu, to solve the daily logistical challenges around flying to Hawaii. “I approach my job with the idea that there’s always a solution, and Michael is the same way,” Bisho says. “It’s like he’s working for Lynden without working for Lynden. You can’t put a price on that kind of engagement. Very few other carriers have anything close to that kind of engagement.”
Alaska now has more than 100 nonstop flights each week between the islands and West Coast cities, and the volume of shipments on each flight continues to be high. “As more services and routes return, Alaska has been able to maintain business largely because of the remarkable service of our teams,” says Kelsey. “Our cargo call center and our local team in Hawaii are very knowledgeable and make communication between our customers and our operations team a huge priority. Those relationships are really the foundation as we continue to grow our business and reputation as a reliable shipping partner in the islands.”