(July 17) Delta Air Lines, Atlanta, has invested $2 million in its cargo business in hopes of growing the segment by a quarter in the next year, and perishables play an important role in that growth.

Delta purchased four coolers for its Atlanta facility to store perishables, including fresh produce. Each cooler has about 25,000 square feet. The coolers were available for use in mid-July and should be in full operation by early August, said Neel Shah, vice president of Delta’s cargo division.

The coolers are kept at three different temperatures — two of them at the same temperature — allowing Delta to store different products, Shaw said.

Delta’s cargo division had $482 million in revenues last year, and the goal is to reach $600 million this year, he said. Delta made the large investment in cargo because it plans to grow its share of international flights.

Delta’s cargo operation has about 775 employees with nearly 300 in Atlanta.

The cargo division faced cutbacks when the carrier faced financial troubles, resulting in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy from September 2005 to April 2007.

Shah said he has wanted to improve the airline’s cargo division since joining Delta in January. He said perishable shipments originating at and ending in Atlanta were a big problem for Delta because the third-party storage facility it used was a long distance from the company’s warehouse. That resulted in numerous service failures and sub-standard performance for customers, Shah said.

“We needed to have an in-house perishable facility that could effectively handle perishables like fresh produce and temperature-controlled pharmaceuticals,” Shah said.

Shah said he expects the investment to have a payback, in part, because exports of fruits and vegetables are booming.

“We want to get a share of that,” Shah said.

Delta handles a considerable amount of volume of fresh produce inbound and outbound from South America and the West Coast as well as an increasing volume of shipments to and from Europe, Shah said.

David Collins, president of Forest Park, Ga.-based Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice Inc., said Delta’s new storage is a positive development for companies in the area. Phoenix rarely uses the airport’s storage facilities because Phoenix is only 20 minutes from the airport and the company usually picks up shipments immediately after they arrive.

“They do bring in not only a lot of produce and specialty items but also flowers, and keeping the temperature integrity is so important,” Collins said.