MIAMI (AP) — If Cupid were to have a home, it would be Miami International Airport.
Before millions of Americans can present their loved ones with a bouquet of Valentine's Day roses, most of the flowers are flown from Colombia and Ecuador to Miami, many in the bellies of passenger planes. There, cargo handlers and customs agents — call them Cupid's helpers — ensure that the deep red petals stay perfect until they reach their final destination.
In the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, about 738 million flowers — 85 percent of imported flowers — come through the Florida airport. Los Angeles is a distant second, with 44 million. The roses, carnations, hydrangeas, sunflowers and other varieties are rushed by forklift from planes to chilled warehouses and then onto refrigerated trucks or other planes and eventually delivered to florists, gas stations and grocery stores across the country.
"We always joke that a passenger gets themselves to the next flight while a bit of cargo does not," says Jim Butler, president of cargo operations at American Airlines.
The biggest problem this Valentine's Day might be the final few miles of the journey. A massive snowstorm that blanketed the east coast has made some suburban roads difficult for local delivery drivers.
For U.S. passenger airlines such as American, cargo is a small, but increasingly important part of their business. New jets are built with more freight space and the airlines are adding new non-stop international routes popular with shippers.
Most airline passengers focus on what's visible to them, like the amount of legroom and the space in the overhead bins. Few think about what's beneath the cabin floor.
There's fresh Alaskan salmon, this season's latest luxury clothing from Milan and plenty of Peruvian asparagus heading to London. Then there are the more unusual items like human corneas, the occasional live cheetah or lion and large shipments of gold and diamonds.
And there are the flowers.
Valentine's Day is a big day for flowers, topped only by Mother's Day, and cargo teams work extra hours ahead of both to ensure on-time deliveries.
"There's a spark in the air while loading these," says Andy Kirschner, director of cargo sales for Delta Air Lines. "You know this is going to loved ones."
Worldwide, airlines and air shippers carried about 52 million tons of freight representing $6 trillion worth of goods last year, according to the International Air Transport Association, the airlines' trade group. That was up 1.4 percent from the prior year. The amount of air cargo is expected to climb 17 percent in the next five years.
Shipping by air costs about 10 times more than by sea, says David G. Ross, a transportation analyst at Stifel. So, plane rides are reserved for trendy high-end fashion items, the hottest electronics or perishable foods and flowers.
"If it's the new product on the block and everybody wants it, then you can ship it by air," Ross says.
Most non-perishables, such as T-shirts, jeans and even mass-produced flat-screen TVs, travel by ship.
"If you have a low price point on it, you don't have room for expensive transportation," says Ross.
That's been the philosophy of many corporations coming out of the recession — and has made for rough going for the air cargo business. Low interest rates have also factored into companies choosing to take a few extra weeks to ship products to the marketplace by sea.
As a result, air cargo rates have been depressed. Air shippers worldwide took in $59 billion in revenue last year, down 12 percent from two years ago.