It's Not Just Passengers Trying To Catch A Flight

Export goods from flowers to ostrich meat are stuck in Africa, unable to be shipped to Europe as travel remains backlogged by an ash cloud from Iceland's erupting volcano.

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If you're in South Africa you cannot see the volcanic cloud from Iceland, but you can feel the impact. You can even see the impact. Just go the Johannesburg airport where the hangars are filling up with perishable goods that have to be shipped out soon - or thrown away. Vicky O'Hara has our report.

VICKY O'HARA: South Africa is a hub for agricultural exports - fresh flowers from Cape Town; fruit, vegetables, lettuce and ostrich meat from farms throughout the region. Here at Skyservices, which handles air transport of perishable products from Johannesburg International Airport, the warehouse is fairly quiet.

Forklifts move pallets from the loading dock to cold storage, but most of the goods are going nowhere. The company is simply offering refrigeration to customers who've been unable to ship their products to Europe.

Mr. YAVOC VANDERBURG (Branch manager, Skyservices): This here's mushrooms that's destined for Switzerland. Now it's been stuck in the cold room since last week because of the cancelled flight departures.

O'HARA: Yavoc Vanderburg is branch manager for Skyservices. He says the mushrooms arrived here last Friday but can be kept in cold storage for only three or four days.

Mr. VANDERBURG: These we can't use anymore. Chuck them away in the dust bin.

O'HARA: In another freezing cold room, Skyservices Operations Manager Yako Flock(ph), unwraps plastic trays of plant cuttings destined for Europe. Each three-inch stem is carefully poked into its container, one next to another, tray after tray. It's a delicate export and it can't sit in storage.

Mr. YAKO FLOCK (Operations manager, Skyservices): It's chrysanthemum cuttings. These cuttings can stay at a constant temperature for about three to four days. Some of the cuttings has been sitting here since Thursday, Friday last week.

O'HARA: Flock also shows off a room with hulking pallets of meat.

Mr. FLOCK: Ostrich meat. It was supposed to fly on Friday and we're still waiting to see if we can get it out tonight, if Swiss(ph) is flying. This is for Switzerland. It's losing its shelf life.

O'HARA: Flock says if the fresh meat doesn't get shipped the producer will have to freeze it and ship by sea. Unlike the plants and produce, it won't be a total loss.

He says his company expects earnings to be down 18 percent this month because of the volcanic cloud, more if planes to Europe don't get back in the sky and stay there. He's just glad the volcanic eruption occurred now as exports have slowed. South Africa is moving into winter.

Mr. FLOCK: It's very fortunate that it happened now and not in our peak season. It would've been an absolute disaster - absolute disaster.

O'HARA: Skyservices and its clients got a break this morning. A Lufthansa flight got out. So did a KLM jet carrying live plant cuttings to Amsterdam. That helped free up cold storage space, but Flock worries whether the planes will make to their destination.

Mr. FLOCK: When are they going to get into Europe? I don't know, especially with a second cloud moving over Europe now.

O'HARA: His company has asked producers to stop sending perishables to the airport until transport normalizes. But small farmers in Africa have little cold storage of their own. Many will be throwing out the fruits of their labor.

For NPR News, I'm Vicky O'Hara in Johannesburg.

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