Air freight firms are bustling amid bottlenecks at West Coast ports

Well before the sun rose over Los Angeles International Airport, a dozen workers at the Able Freight Services Inc. warehouse hustled bunches of asparagus through metal detectors and scooted stacks of Brussels sprouts around on electric pallet jacks.

The number of morning shift workers has doubled in recent weeks as the operation has seen a surge in orders from businesses that can't get their goods through West Coast seaports.

Port activity has slowed as negotiators for shipping companies and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union haggle over final details in a months-long labor dispute. The conflict between the dockworkers' union and employer group Pacific Maritime Assn. has caused bottlenecks at ports stretching from San Diego to northern Washington state.

Many businesses are losers in the gridlock, but air freight companies are among those benefiting as companies look to bypass the blockage — even though air shipping can be much more expensive.

"The overall impact is still overwhelmingly negative for the economy, but from an air freight perspective, it's actually good," said Neel J. Shah, Able's chief commercial officer.

As more shippers avoid the ports, Able is handling 40% more volume than during the same period in 2014.

"And last year was a good year," Shah said.

The warehouse floor is normally empty because boxes are loaded so quickly. But this week, it was crowded with rolls of AstroFoil insulation and pallets of produce.

in moving highly perishable goods, but these days its coolers are stocked with items seldom seen here: cartons of low fat chocolate milk, dried wolfberry powder, bags of Idaho onions, a thousand pounds of Tulare County oranges, dry rice headed to Panama.

"This is not normal," said compliance director Grant Urata. "People are like, 'What the heck is going on?'"

It's everything that's not happening at the ports, where ships are stalling in berths and idling in long lines out of harbors. California citrus destined for Asia has rotted in its containers; foreign apparel manufacturers fret that their clothing won't reach American retailers in time for the looming spring season.

Cargo departures out of LAX rose 6% year-over-year in December, as port cargo slowed for a variety of reasons. Arrivals of air freight surged 20% — nearly 10,000 tons.

Able and other freight forwarders help companies who produce products — such as berry seller Driscoll's, a major client — get their goods from airport to airport.

As a third-party logistics coordinator, Able screens produce through metal detectors, X-ray machines or explosives sensors. They ready the cargo with foil insulation, frozen gel packs or dry ice, load it onto pallets, negotiate contracts with airlines and deal with government inspectors.

Able — a private business with some $200 million in annual revenue and up to 250 employees depending on the season — sent goods to more than 60 countries last year. Most large planes leaving LAX have products onboard that were processed by the 22-year-old company, Shah said.

Annually, nearly 80,000 tons of perishable goods pass through Able's two Los Angeles facilities, its San Francisco site and its warehouses in Guadalajara and the Hawaiian islands, Shah said.

Exports make up more than 80% of the business, with fruits and vegetables constituting the vast majority. Shah, while winding through towers of produce taller than his 6-foot frame, boasts that Able can get berries from a Central Valley farm to a dinner table in Dubai within four days.

There's also protein — meats, cheeses and South American salmon — kept in a frigid room that smells faintly of fish. Most workers are bundled up in beanies and gloves.

Sometimes, pharmaceuticals worth millions of dollars pass through another room. Every Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, Able handles a million roses.

Now, cake mixes and chocolate chips sit on pallets in a warehouse next to the main office, where employees monitor airline statuses and track trucks near shelves full of plane models. Nearby, past plastic curtains dusted with frost, two truckloads-worth of frozen pizza dough wait in shrink-wrapped cardboard stacks before heading to Japanese Costco stores.

Earlier, Able flew out packages of French fries and sauces for McDonald's restaurants in Japan.

"Big brand companies can't afford to have products missing from their shelves," said managing director Gary Bull. "If McDonald's needs something, they'll bite the bullet on the cost."

Able's busy season usually doesn't start until the growing season shifts into high gear for berries. Starting in May, workers put in 18-hour shifts and trucks wait to unload in a line out the gate.

In January and February, their slow period, Able employees tend to head out on vacation. But the ports stalemate has forced many to delay those plans. Urata, the compliance director, postponed his annual March trip to Washington state to see his parents.

One day last week, Able sent out nearly 400 pallets instead of its usual 200. Workers had to rent a specialized machine to help manipulate some of the heavier crates.

Able and other air shipping companies will probably benefit for a good while. Even after negotiators reach a resolution, the West Coast ports will probably remain congested an additional six to eight weeks, Bull said.

"It's been a very interesting couple of months," he said. "Even if they solve the problem today, our pace of activity will continue through April."