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, cellphones, computers and computer chips, medical equipment, and medicines — the backbone of trade in southern Florida — some decidedly more exotic and unusual cargoes 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 high fliers.
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 Miami International Airport.
“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.
In the past 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.
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.
Worldwide moves about 11,000 horses through Miami every year, Allessandrini said, including jumpers, dressage and eventing horses that spend six months in the U.S. and six months in Europe.
Plantation, Fla.-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.”
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.”
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.
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,” Taylor said. “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.