As the vicious virus continues to mutate with no clear vision of what the future might hold, the whole world is hoping that the newly developed vaccine(s) will help restore some sense of normalcy. It is one “big” mission to develop the vaccine, and another “big” mission to deliver the billions of vaccine doses the world needs to combat the virus.
As we speak, the global aviation industry, itself heavily impacted by the pandemic, is gearing up to play a role of utmost importance: Delivering the highly anticipated Covid-19 vaccine! The task alone is difficult indeed, made even more difficult by the weakened status of airlines, that had to cut jobs, routes and aircraft to survive the crisis. As more vaccines around the world are being developed and approved, air shipments of Covid-19 vaccines are expected to begin in 2021 and peak in the second quarter of the upcoming year.
Mind you, Covid-19 vaccines are estimated to account for only around 1% of total cargo shipments industry-wide in 2021. In other words, delivering the vaccine will actually not provide much needed financial cushioning for airlines to “save their results” the coming year. It is just a “very important and delicate shipment” that the world desperately needs.
In order to properly handle such very “thermo-sensitive” shipments in massive quantities, all elements of the aviation industry must be adequately prepared and working in a well-coordinated and speedy manner. Airlines, airplanes, airports, and international aviation regulatory authorities must work harmoniously to pass the century’s biggest challenge yet.
There are many layers of difficulty to their mission. The first of many is the need for massive cargo capacity. Airlines are totally revamping handling procedures and repurposing passenger jets, using them for cargo-only flights to meet the demand for increased cargo-capacity.
The second challenge is related to the biological stability of the vaccine and the need for proper handling and storage. Thermally-sensitive is one thing, and Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is another! Pfizer’s vaccine must be transported at a whopping -70 degrees Celsius, meaning that companies need to use GPS-enabled thermal sensors to track the temperature and location of each shipment. Airlines will need to rely on Pfizer’s special thermal shipper as a temporary storage unit that can be refilled with dry ice for up to 15 days to cool the medicine.
Another major challenge is security. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the possibility of tampering with the vaccine, production of fake shots and attempts to disrupt distribution are also a main cause of concern. End-to-end security escorts as part of maximized security measures are required.
Airports, in turn, are maximizing security at depots handling the vaccine, and working on expanding or adding cold-storage facilities to properly store the vaccines. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued vaccine transport planning considerations for airport operators, including guidance on enhanced security and snow removal protocols.
Talk about more challenges! It is important that the vaccine also reach the poor all over the world! The United Nations humanitarian relief agency is working on recruiting airlines to distribute the vaccine to more than a 170 countries worldwide, even countries with underdeveloped, ageing or non-existent infrastructure!
In the United States, American Airlines and Delta Airlines stated that they are qualified to transport the delicate vaccine. United Airlines has already flown several charter jets carrying the vaccine, each with capacity to hold over 1 million doses. Executives in the US also contracted with United Parcel Service (UPS) and FedEx to ship the vaccines.
In Europe, the German airline Lufthansa has applied for a series of contracts to ship vaccines from Brussels Airport and from Frankfurt Airport along a series of international routes. Brussels Airport demonstrated an early and key role in ferrying the vaccines due to its close proximity to Pfizer’s factory in Belgium.
The British airline Virgin Atlantic is also pitching in to transport vaccines, having developed a new pharmaceutical tracking operation using staff grounded in the US and the UK who can track shipments internationally, with a surveillance team to track the temperature and movement of each vaccine shipment.
In the Arab world, Emirates Airlines stated that it is in the process of building the largest dedicated air-cargo hub for Covid-19 vaccines in the world in Dubai, with more than 9’000 m2 of thermally controlled internationally certified storage space for pharmaceuticals.
Will the aviation industry pass the most challenging logistical exercise to date? The whole world is counting on it!
Until next week, peeps!
And happy holidays!