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Mexico is turning into a magnet for Chinese passenger airlines, but the cargo action is further south, with a steady rise in charters hauling cherries from Chile to China.

China Eastern Airlines appears poised to be the second Chinese carrier to set course for Mexico City this year. According to unconfirmed reports, the carrier is mulling over plans to launch flights from Shanghai to Mexico City, with a possible spur extending into South America.

CAPA – Center for Aviation, which recently published a study on the growing presence of Chinese airlines in Latin America, noted that China Eastern could work together with SkyTeam partner Aeromexico. This could help secure slots at the Mexican capital’s chronically congested Benito Juarez airport as well as with a link into South America.

If it goes ahead, China Eastern will join rival China Southern Airlines, which added a link to Mexico City to its Vancouver flights earlier this year.

On the cargo side, Mexico has been of growing interest to Asian carriers. Cathay Pacific entered Mexico with twice-weekly B747-8F service in 2013 and subsequently added three more frequencies.

Around the same time as Cathay started freighter flights to Mexico, Chinese carriers began running charters to Santiago to haul cherries back to their home market.

Since then, the number of charters operating between Chile and China to move cherries has grown every year, noted Roland Zach, vice-president of StarBroker and global head of charter for DHL Global Forwarding. Initially, Chinese carriers flew in with their own freighters, but later third-party charters took over.

StarBroker itself has run cherry charters from Santiago to Miami since 2009, as well as blueberry charters from Argentina. About 60% of the cherries were for the US market, with the remaining 40% transloaded to connecting flights to Asia, according to Mr Zach.

The company’s Santiago-Miami charters continue, but it has supplemented them with direct charters from Chile to China, which only stop for fuel, carrying full payloads of Chilean cherries across the Pacific. The direct service cuts two to two-and-a-half days from the transit time, Mr Zach said.

Markus Fellmann, global vice-president of Hellmann Perishable Logistics, noted that about 50% of Chile’s entire cherry crop of last year was sold in China.

Logistics operators said privately that Chinese companies had bought into farming organisations and seafood processing firms to establish control over the complete supply chain of food headed to the hungry Chinese market for perishables imports, which has been growing at a rapid pace. There have been suggestions that the Chinese government has supported some of these moves.

The CAPA report notes that the authorities in Beijing are looking to the nation’s large carriers to expand their footprint around the globe, including a presence in Latin America. At this point, Air China is the only Asian carrier flying regularly to South America, operating flights from Beijing via Madrid to Sao Paulo.

Again, China Eastern could join the party there. According to reports from the Peruvian government, a delegation from the carrier visited Lima in November to assess the possibility of flights to the Peruvian capital.

China Eastern has not commented on the matter, but the Peruvian authorities indicated that such a service would likely kick off with freighter flights.

Such a link would be of interest to DHL Global Forwarding, as would additional service between Mexico and China, noted Mr Zach. In any case, he expects the volume of cargo flights linking Latin American growers with the Asian market to keep growing.