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Flowers imported from South America wait for insect inspection at Miami International Airport.

Romance really is in the air

Passenger airlines rush those flowers for Valentine’s Day

Associated Press photos
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials check imported flowers at Miami International Airport. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, about 738 million flowers – 85 percent of imported flowers – come through the airport.

– 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 winter storm that blanketed the East Coast has made local delivery difficult in some areas.

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 nonstop international routes popular with shippers.

Most airline passengers focus on what they see, such as space for legroom and overhead bins. Few think about what’s beneath the cabin floor.

There’s fresh Alaskan salmon, the latest fashions from Milan and plenty of Peruvian asparagus heading to London. Then there are the more unusual items, such as 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 occasions 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.”