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Are Airlines Ready to Transport Vaccines?

Madhu Unnikrishnan

September 9th, 2020

The answer is “maybe.” The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the airline industry could be ready to air ship billions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines, when they’re ready to be administered, but only if governments around the world coordinate now on transport policies.

The logistical challenge of transporting billions of vaccines is enormous. First, the sheer capacity required. IATA estimates that 8,000 cargo-only Boeing 747s would be needed to carry enough doses for the world’s 7.6 billion people. It’s almost needless to say that there aren’t 8,000 B747 freighters (given that Boeing only built just under 1,600 B747s of all types in the 50 years since the aircraft launched).

Most air freight is carried not by freighters but in the belly holds of passenger aircraft. Since the pandemic started, airlines have slashed international routes, resulting in a cargo capacity crunch just as cargo demand and profits started to rise. Many airlines, including United, American, Turkish, Emirates, and others, have operated special cargo-only flights since the pandemic begin, converting passenger cabins to temporary cargo holds (and in fact, cargo led to rare profits in the industry for Korean and Asiana). Global air freight capacity was down 31% in July, the latest month for which data are available, from 2019, IATA said.

A second challenge is maintaining the “cold chain,” or keeping the vaccines cool from manufacture to delivery. It’s not a matter of life and death if the cold chain fails for a shipment of fresh fruit. It could be if a shipment of vaccines is exposed to high temperatures, during land transport to the airport, on the tarmac, or even at the delivery airport if the shipment is held up by customs. Early in the pandemic, reports that personal protective equipment was stalled on tarmacs raised outrage, even though most of the equipment survived. Vaccines would not survive days on the tarmac, the industry warns. Freight industry analysts have said the cold chain already is stretched and could further imperil the safe transport of vaccines.

And speaking of safety, airlines transporting vaccines will be charged with the safety of what will arguably be the world’s most valuable commodity. Security at all points of the logistics chain needs to be strengthened and can’t be solely airlines’ responsibility, IATA said.

The good news is that airlines have parked thousands of aircraft — including hundreds of large widebodies — that can be pressed into vaccine-transport duty. But it takes time to return aircraft parked in the desert to service. And it takes employees to return those aircraft to service and to fly them, just as airlines around the world are in the process of furloughing tens of thousands of workers.

None of this is insurmountable, IATA argues. Governments need to act and coordinate on security, mandating cargo flights, and loosening some quarantine and travel restrictions to allow flight crews more flexibility to operate cargo flights. But the time to act is now, not when vaccines are ready for distribution. “If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” said IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac.   

Madhu Unnikrishnan

September 9th, 2020


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