Of all star-crossed years for Christmas and New Year’s Day to fall on a Tuesday, it had to be this one. Air travelers are staying home in droves this fall, a fact that should have translated into a healthy spike in domestic orders for Maine’s favorite seafood. Lobster could have provided a luxurious centerpiece for elegant home-cooked meals throughout the country at Christmas and New Year’s, but not when those holidays fall on Tuesday.

“Tuesday is the worst day of the week for us. In fact, it’s the only bad day of the week,” said Jimmy Graffam, of Graffam Bros. in Rockport. “We can’t ship on Monday, because it’s too late, so the closest we can get to Christmas is Saturday,” too early to guarantee survival of a live, perishable product.

Graffam says this is the worst set of circumstances faced by the business since his family started it in 1946, or began air-freighting live lobsters out in the 1950s.

Lobster orders were down even before the terrorist attacks because economies around the world were slipping. After Sept. 11, all the so-called “hospitality” or travel-related industries tanked: hotels, cruise ships, upscale and chain restaurants. “Everything related to air travel is way off,” said Graffam. “My business is off 50 percent.”

“Lobster is happy food,” said York lobsterman Patten White, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “And people aren’t happy, so sales are down.”

Immediately after the attacks, flights were canceled and the air-freighting of lobsters and other goods was halted. The MLA called on Maine lobstermen to stop fishing for a day or two to help prevent a glut in the lobster pipeline. Trucks full of live lobsters were stuck at the Canadian border, and shipments readied for flight before the attacks sat in warehouses. Even when limited numbers of planes began taking to the air again, a 24-hour delay for cargo put a crimp in the industry, by placing vulnerable live lobster cargo at risk.

The planes began flying again, the ban on passenger planes carrying freight was rolled back and the 24-hour waiting period was lifted for frequent shippers. Susan Barber, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, estimates that within eight to 10 days after the attack, around 95 percent of the traveling lobsters could be flown out.

Airline flights are fewer since the public developed a new fear of flying, but fewer passengers translates into at least a little more cargo space available to fly lobsters to cross-country or international destinations. The stage was set for the industry to return to normal.

But “normal” does not appear to be an option for this winter.

Except for harvesters with unusual seasons, such as Monhegan with its December opening, most Maine lobstermen had caught between two-thirds and 90 percent of their annual catch by the time prices dove from the $3-$3.50 range down to the $2-$2.50 range in early November. (Their annual incomes were lower, due to the earlier, more gradual dropping of prices as worldwide economies stalled.)

“This whole year’s been weird,” said South Thomaston lobsterman David Cousens, president of the MLA. “Prices were low before the terrorist attack, but since then no one’s heart has been in it anyway, and orders are way off. If no one wants them, it’s better to just leave them there till spring. They’re better off on the bottom than at a dealer’s for $2 a pound.”

“November is the end of the season. It generally slows down then anyway,” said John Norton, president of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, a firm that sells a lot of lobster meat and frozen lobster tails. His business has been “impacted differently” from the live lobster business, but has suffered “a huge impact” as well.

“We have cut back severely on buying already. The large users of frozen lobster products are cruise lines, casinos, resorts, chain restaurants. That’s where the bulk of frozen lobster goes and those businesses have been significantly impacted,” said Norton. “A dealer in live lobsters has to plan inventory three or four days out. We have to plan three to six months ahead.”

Overseas sales

Bill Atwood, owner of William Atwood Lobster Company in Spruce Head, said between 10 percent and 20 percent of his business involves flying live lobsters to Europe. Europe, particularly France, loves lobster for the holidays.

“Production wound down here” after the attacks, said Atwood, who admits he’s still an optimist. “November is our big drop anyway. After the attacks, our New York business really crashed.”

However, despite reports that scores of New York City restaurants have gone bankrupt and hundreds more are teetering on the brink of financial ruin, Atwood says two weeks ago, one of his big restaurant customers on 42nd Street “just started to get back to normal.”

The Grand Central Oyster Bar is Atwood’s bellwether for the New York dining business, except, of course, restaurants located in or adjacent to Ground Zero. He’s been selling to the Grand Central for 30 years and he’s watched economies and fortunes fluctuate through the three decades.

“At first, his business almost came to a standstill, because no one was going into the city,” said Atwood.

Barber points out that news accounts said at the time that Americans all over the country were staying home right after the attacks, eating in front of the television set.

“Now his business is back up. Local people are going out again. People are coming into the city,” Atwood said.

Although his business dropped off, Atwood believes the traditionally high Christmas lobster sales in Europe will still happen. He thinks December has potential, if the quality of lobsters improves.

“Our fishermen had another good year of landings, even if the price was down,” Atwood said. “One of the things we’re not hearing a lot about is that the price dropped, in part, because the quality was not good. We’ve had a really late season for shedders, and we can’t ship shedders [Right after molting, lobster have soft-shells and are called ‘shedders’.] to Europe. They don’t survive.”

“That’s one of the reasons the Canadians stopped buying [American lobsters]. We’re still paying $3 a pound for good, hard-shelled lobsters,” said Atwood. Canada’s lobster processors service many cruise lines and observers also say canceled cruise ship orders are the other reason they stopped buying U.S. product.

Air forwarders

Glenn Larson, senior supervisor for perishables with air forwarder Nippon Express USA, Inc., in Boston, says that despite the rampant reports of huge drops in lobster orders, his live lobster shipments to Japan showed only a small dip right after the attacks. Now they’re going up.

“Some of the increase is attributable to the fact that some of my customers picked up new clients in Japan,” said Larson. “But all the other perishables going to Japan are down, except monkfish livers. Our volume is down, but there’s a slight uptick in the lobster shipments.”

Larson was born and raised in Japan, and says lobster is favored for fine dining in fancy French-style restaurants and for weddings. His firm shipped 223.5 tons of lobster to Japan last year and expects to beat that record for 2001.

Cargo space is not a real problem anymore, and airlines are no longer holding perishable freight, but Larson said the airlines have found other ways to hinder the flow of seafood to far-flung destinations: surcharges.

“They have added a per-kilo or per-pound charge to every shipment,” said Larson. “Some of our customers can’t afford it, so they’re switching to Federal Express. Fed Ex says they’re not a passenger service so they don’t have to charge it. The airlines dropped a two-year-old fuel surcharge from 15 percent to 10 percent, but I believe the fuel costs have dropped even more.”

“Lobster is a high-end product and people are cutting back,” said John Monroe, another air forwarder with Ocean Air, Inc., of Boston. Europe is a new region for his company, so he has no history to which to compare recent shipments but other seafood sales to Europe rose (“probably because of mad cow disease”) while lobster sales have dropped. Ocean Air’s business to Asia has dropped by 10 percent and to the Caribbean, at least 20 percent. The Caribbean business is all tourist-dependent to casinos, cruise ships and hotels.

The November crash of an American Airlines jet into a Queens residential area sent air freighters into a mild panic. “I told everyone not to ship lobsters to New York that day,” Monroe said, “figuring better safe than sorry. It ended up the planes were able to fly in, but you never know.” Many people in the lobster industry are worried about bankruptcies, he said. A major Canadian lobster company with an office in Boston went out of business in early November. “We may not see the brunt of the bankruptcies for six months. Who knows what’s going to happen? If there is any other major disaster… well, it’s very volatile right now.”

Optimism reigns

“I’ve been through a lot in this business. I’ve seen times worse than this. There were a couple of years in the ’80s when I worked for nothing. Bankruptcies were happening everywhere,” said Atwood. “People would order lobsters then go out of business. Lobster dealers weren’t getting paid.” Look on the bright side of low prices, Atwood suggests. “There’s going to be a good buy on lobsters. Prices will be lower, so we should be able to sell them locally.”

Charles Butler, executive chef at Camden’s Waterfront Restaurant, agrees. In fact, he says the restaurant’s lobster business has not changed appreciably all fall.

“The number of diners is down a little, so the lobster numbers are probably down a little,” said Butler. “But it’s nothing noticeable.”

“We’ll be successful if we sell all the lobsters we buy,” quips Atwood. “The price will level out sometime soon. Things will change from now on.”

If Susan Barber has anything to do with it, no lobster will go unsold. The MLPC is negotiating with the Federal Aviation Administration to have regulations clarified, removing any potential impediments for purveyors before Christmas sales pick up.

Also, the MLPC quickly created a new fall lobster program, including recipes, for retailers and restaurateurs to help them sell more lobsters. The organization also sent out holiday news releases to consumer and trade publications and organizations and included recipes and suggestions for lobster gifts and holiday meals.

“The National Restaurant Association is launching a $2 million campaign to encourage people to go back to eating out, because it’s vital to the economy,” said Barber.

Graffam, despite the downturn in business, also remains optimistic. “We’re pushing gift certificates,” he said. “Besides, with everything else that’s going on in the world, we can’t complain.”

“I like the lobster business,” said Atwood. “Most of it’s been positive. Even in this crisis, everyone in the industry is working together to pull it out.”