Air cargo industry needs longer runway before vaccines take off

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by Emily Atkins

The air cargo industry does not feel prepared to distribute Covid-19 vaccines. A recent TIACA survey of freight forwarders, ground handling companies, airlines, logistics providers and airports confirmed that only 28 percent feel well prepared to handle the vaccines, while 41 percent feel very unprepared.

“Covid 19 is going to be the biggest product launch in the history of mankind,” said Neel Jones Shah of Flexport, in a press call. Yet there is a lot of key information still missing that the industry needs to ensure they are ready.

The survey of 181 companies found that service providers already in discussion with vaccine manufacturers – primarily logistics service providers – are feeling the most confident about their ability to meet the demand. On the other hand, ground handlers and airports feel least prepared.

What shippers need

The survey identified what both vaccine shippers and the distribution industries feel they need to make the rollout successful. Shippers want speed, security, reliability and transparency.

Every shipment will require express service, and customs procedures will need to be aligned to prevent delays. Security will need to be able to prevent theft and counterfeit product from entering the supply chain. Shippers expect guaranteed delivery times, and recorded information on shipments at every milestone along the transit chain.


Shipper expectations are highest for transparency, said Nathan de Valck of Brussels Airport and chair of the Pharma-Aero initiative. Shippers need information on existing airfreight capacity and wait times; capacities of all logistics providers involved; the abilities of each cargo facility at transit and destination points; real time data on location, status and temperature of shipments; and the ability to alert service providers in event of an exception.

For their part, the carriers and handlers need to know where shipments will be originating, and the types of packaging and handling that will be required. For example, the quantity of dry ice required will be a critical factor as the amount allowed on an aircraft is limited.

“We as an industry are as strong as our weakest link. To move the needle on industry readiness, we need to ensure everyone is engaged and informed. Only with a strong and transparent dialogue between pharmaceutical and air cargo sectors, governments, non-governmental organizations and healthcare institutions can we overcome these challenges. The sooner, the better,” – said Emir Pineda of Miami International Airport and member of TIACA’s board of directors and co-lead of the Sunrays project.

Sunrays project

The project is designed to provide the air cargo industry with clarity of the demands, expectations and quality supply chain requirements, like critical trade lanes, air cargo capacity, handling and storage, track and trace requirements, for the transportation of the vaccines. It will also provide shippers with more understanding of capabilities of various logistics players involved in vaccine transport. The preparedness survey is the first step in accomplishing these goals.

“We are still at early stages of industry preparation for the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines and there are still a lot of unknowns. Delivering COVID-19 vaccines is a life-saving mission which will need a combination of people, infrastructure, standards, packaging solutions and collaboration. Getting the equation right requires us to work together now,” De Valck said.

The industry must get ready to deal with risks such as temperature excursion; lack of visibility; lack of infrastructure, capacity shortage; unexpected delays; end to end connectivity; security; and costs. “Anticipating risks is key in the air cargo industry every day,” said Pineda, so it’s ingrained in doing business.

Priorities for the industry include creating collaboration between the pharma industry and air cargo sectors; improving visibility and transparency; building adequate capabilities; getting the support from regulators to speed up the process and remove cumbersome procedures, and getting help from international organizations and donors to ensure no country is left behind.

Investment needed

At present, only 54 percent of providers say they have cold chain equipment in place, and when it comes to very low temperature (-80 to -120C) storage, only about 10 percent say they have that capacity. The survey found that 36 percent of suppliers said they are prepared to invest in more infrastructure, while another 41 percent said they might.

This is a call to action, Pineda said. Manufacturers need to involve all the cargo logistics providers in planning from the outset. The approval of monitoring devices needs to begin, and the rollout of data sharing technology also needs to start now. Likewise governments need to be brought on board to ensure that customs procedures do not result in delayed shipments.

Next steps for the Sunrays project include developing a set of guidelines for handling and transport of the vaccines.

“These are unprecedented times,” Pineda said. “This is the biggest logistics challenge the world has ever seen.”