LOAD 'EM UP: Dallas/Fort Worth Crew Chief Tom Fagan loads cargo onto an American Airlines 777-300ER.

From FRESH FLOWERS TO FRESH FRUIT, your next flight could be transporting almost anything.

You board a flight, take your seat and look out the window to see one of our people loading bags on the plane. Ever wonder what else gets stowed in the bellies of our birds? I reached out to our Cargo operation to find out — and the answers may surprise you.

American Airlines ships roughly 800 million pounds of cargo every year, including perishable foods and flowers, consumer electronics, automotive and industrial parts, mail, apparel and some of the newest lifesaving vaccines. The goods are shipped to major cities throughout the U.S., Europe, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia. “All of the cargo we move ships underneath our passengers,” explains Jim Butler, president of American Airlines Cargo. “About 80 percent ships internationally — originating, terminating or connecting at some point in the U.S. The other 20 percent is domestic business.”

So how exactly does it work? First of all, the airline only accepts cargo from TSA-approved shippers. These “known shippers” work directly with freight forwarders who then work with American to transport goods. “Think of it like a travel agent and a traveler; we work with the travel agent, and that agent works with the traveler,” Butler explains. The airline provides airport-to-airport freight service using its current daily schedule of passenger flights.

Freight Figures

Last year, American Airlines Cargo posted some impressive stats for cargo shipped systemwide:

196 million
pounds of perishable food

90 million
pounds of seafood

18 million
pounds of flowers

pounds of iPhones shipped to the U.S. in time for their release date

200 pieces
of gold and ancient artifacts shipped from Colombia to the British Museum in London

American offers cargo service in the majority of cities it serves. In Miami, American’s largest cargo center, the carrier handles about 700,000 pounds of freight every day. Each of American’s hub facilities is equipped with specialty refrigerators and storage spaces that can be climate-controlled based on the shipment. For instance, blueberries from Chile are refrigerated, while tropical flowers from Colombia are kept in warm, humid temperatures.

The cargo that is being transported can depend on the location and seasonality. In mid-February, Miami is a transport spot for grain seeds from Argentina to the Midwest, so farmers are ready for springtime planting. February also sees an influx of flower shipments for Valentine’s Day, as does the month of May for Mother’s Day. In fact, last year, American shipped roughly 1 million pounds of flowers during the Valentine’s holiday and 18 million pounds throughout the entire year.

And there are other interesting shipments as well. Items include live tropical fish, gold and precious stones, blood for transfusions, priceless pieces of art and — of course — pets. Every month, American transports and cares for about 2,200 pets around the world.

Shipments also depend on aircraft type. “The total amount of cargo we can carry really depends on the aircraft,” Butler says. “Our large wide-body aircraft are really our bread and butter, and with our new B777-300ER aircraft, we can now carry even more cargo than ever before.” A recent flight on the B777-300ER carried more than 100,000 pounds of perishable foods from Los Angeles to London.

It’s those kinds of numbers — along with a global reach — that make the airline the perfect way for customers to ship their common (or not-so-common) items. “Customers choose us because of our extensive global network, the frequency of our flights and our overall customer experience. With American, customers can ship any type of commodity across the world quickly and efficiently,” Butler says. “We are proud to play an important part in the world’s supply chain.”

So, the next time you take your seat, take a closer look at what our workers are loading. Are those blueberries?

Signature of Tara Titcombe
Associate Editor