Normalcy appears to be returning to L.A.'s massive freight and distribution network or at least as normal as it's likely to be for a while.

A war rate surcharge generally remains in effect, bumping up air freight costs by 5 percent to 12 percent, and some airlines are still holding all U.S.-bound freight in their warehouses for up to 48 hours, adding one more layer of delay.

But a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, shippers are learning to deal with the new reality whether through different means of moving freight or more flexible distribution schedules.

"Cargo is moving," said Tom Aoyagi, owner of Express Air Cargo Inc., which air freights goods to the shops aboard cruise ships. "If you are a known shipper, there is no problem."

Mary Graybill, a spokeswoman for EVA Airways Corp. of Taipei, said the airline had a hold on all cargo after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the hold has been lifted in the last week or so. Other carriers appear to be loosening up their holds as well.

Slow economy helps

Freight forwarders said that while international passenger flights have been cut back, there are few passengers flying, which means more space available in the cargo holds.

Also, the slowing economy actually has helped things out. With inventories of electronics and apparel goods at their highest levels in preparation for what's likely to be a sluggish holiday season, retailers don't have a great demand for more goods.

"Already things were slow from the beginning of this year," said Johnnie Yuan, marketing manager for China Airlines, which is based in Taiwan.

In the past week or two, there have been few delays for shippers that are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. "Known shippers get their goods through right away," said Ning Liu, the cargo supervisor for Cathay Pacific Airlines, based in Hong Kong. "If they are not a known shipper then their goods are put on hold. But we don't get many unknown shippers."

Freight movement is especially important to the local economy in some ways more so than the more visible travel and tourism industry. While port and truck traffic was relatively unaffected by the post Sept. 11 turmoil, air cargo and with it, the countless items that are either perishable or require quick delivery has been vulnerable.

Case in point is the seafood industry.

During the first two weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, seafood coming in from around the world often was stuck in ports waiting for international flights bound for the United States to resume their schedules. Even domestic seafood such as live Maine lobsters were scarce for a while in Los Angeles.

Shortage of Sea Bass

Now, just about everything is coming in on time, from ono from Ecuador and the Fiji Islands to escolar from Tahiti and Tonga.

Only Chilean Sea Bass is being delayed because there aren't many international flights coming out of Chile, said Dan Pryor, the fresh seafood buyer at Santa Monica Seafood. Cargo space is limited and much of it is being taken up by Chilean salmon, which is at the height of its season in South America.

"Where Chilean sea bass used to come in every day or every other day, it is now taking three or four days or more to get here," Pryor said.

Among the areas still affected is the apparel business, much of which comes from China, Mexico, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This is because cargo space is difficult to find on international flights and perishable goods have priority.

"There has been a backlog since day one after the attacks," said W. Guy Fox, chairman of Global Transportation Services Inc. in Redondo Beach, which transports clothing for Target, Mervyn's and Marshall Fields stores. "Some companies, because of the backlog in air cargo and lack of payload space, are shifting to sea freight," Fox said.

Freight forwarders say that consumer electronics products, from televisions to computers, also are taking longer to make their way to L.A. due to lack of air cargo space. Most of these goods come from S. Korea, Taiwan, and China. Fortunately electronic sales have been slow, so there is plenty of inventory on hand.

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