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latest news > news in brief > How the volcano took out our fruit salad: UK dependence on air transport

The Guardian

How the volcano took out our fruit salad: UK dependence on air transport

20 April 2010

The Icelandic ash that stopped air freight gave a hint of what a plane-free world would mean for the UK.

On the outskirts of Heathrow there is a multistorey warehouse that plays a remarkable role in the eating habits of millions of people. The British Airways perishables handling centre is the arrival point for 90,000 tonnes of airfreighted fresh produce a year: everything from chopped melon and pineapple fruit salads to baby sweetcorn and asparagus. Every day these once exotic items arrive in the belly of passenger jets from Africa and Asia, destined for the chilled aisles of supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer.

Only not at the moment. With almost all air travel grounded due to volcanic ash, the freight operator that runs the perishables centre today declared things "at a standstill". By definition, these perishable imports do not store well, and Waitrose is already warning of potential shortages. Rather than weigh down the aircraft with unnecessary skin and pips, much of the fruit is pre-sliced in African facilities, making retailers even less able to create contingency buffers. Our desire for all-year-round oral gratification has left us perilously dependent on just-in-time supply chains in the stratosphere.

But fruit and veg is only one aspect of our dependence on air travel revealed by this week’s surprise volcanic disruption. Courier companies such as FedEx and DHL have had to shut down their services, disrupting delicate logistic chains across industry. As anyone who has ordered an iPod from Apple knows, it is possible to track in real time the flow of high-value electronics flown across the world by these companies. Or at least, it is normally.


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