Airlines have a key role to play in the distribution of vaccines

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Freezer containers will be crucial for United and other airlines as they transport Covid-19 vaccines.
Freezer containers will be crucial for United and other airlines as they transport Covid-19 vaccines.

Recent announcements of successful Covid-19 vaccine trials by Pfizer and Moderna have provided hope to struggling airlines, which view vaccines as the ultimate antidote to stifled demand and half-empty planes.

But in order for such vaccines to be distributed widely enough to sharply alter the market for travel, passenger airlines themselves will have to play a key role. In doing so, they'll have to overcome logistical challenges, including dealing with route networks that they've steeply downsized as they ride out the pandemic. 

According to IATA, passenger airlines typically carry approximately half of the world's air cargo, utilizing the bellies of aircraft that are also transporting the flying public. Air cargo specialists, such as UPS, FedEx and DHL, typically carry the other half.

In recent months, IATA as well as individual passenger carriers have been readying for a surge of pharmaceutical business when Covid-19 vaccines become available.

United's cargo operation, for example, developed a Covid-19 readiness task force over the summer. A key challenge, said United vice president of cargo Chris Busch, is to be ready for the deep freezing that at least some vaccines would require. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, must be kept at minus 94 degrees.

In a similar vein, Lufthansa Cargo opened new cold-storage facilities at its Munich hub and at Chicago O'Hare.

"I think it is of critical importance for the whole world that all the players in the air cargo business are able to fly these vaccines. It is almost critical for our civilization," Lufthansa Cargo CEO Peter Gerber said in a recent Aviation Week webcast. 

Meanwhile, IATA has been collaborating with a wide range of governing bodies and global humanitarian organizations, including the World Health Organization, Unicef and the World Bank, in preparation for what will be a sudden and massive increase in the air transport capacity required to address Covid-19 distribution. 

"Governments, supply chain partners, humanitarian organizations and pharmaceutical manufacturers must collaboratively prepare themselves for a widespread global coordinated response to distribute vaccines to where they are needed in a timely, safe and secure manner," reads a distribution guidance document IATA put forward on Nov. 16. 

The challenge of delivering vaccines will indeed be immense. Pfizer alone expects to produce up to 50 million doses this year and another 1.3 billion doses next year.

Providing just a single dose of vaccine to the world's 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, IATA said. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, however, would require two doses. 

Glyn Hughes
Glyn Hughes

Airplanes, of course, won't have to transport every dose. Within major production zones, which IATA global head of cargo Glyn Hughes said will likely include Europe, the U.S., India and China, some doses will be transported via ground. 

But for widespread international distribution, aircraft will be doing the heavy lifting since they are the most efficient option, said Johnathan Foster, principal consultant at the supply chain consulting firm Proxima Group.

However, airlines must find a way to move the required vaccines even as cargo capacity is down sharply as result of the massive network cutbacks that passenger airlines have made during the pandemic.

According to IATA figures, worldwide passenger airline capacity was down 63% year over year in September. Cargo capacity hasn't dropped as sharply as passenger capacity, in part because cargo-only carriers have increased aircraft utilization, but also because passenger airlines around the world have repurposed more than 2,000 planes for cargo-only operations. United alone has operated approximately 7,500 cargo-only flights during the pandemic, Busch said. Still, air cargo capacity was down 25.4% year over year in September. 

Foster said demand for vaccine delivery will present an opportunity for carriers to utilize even more of their grounded planes for cargo operations. 

"This market dynamic could help restore many aviation-related jobs and could possibly become a beacon of hope once again in our skies," he said. 

IATA's Hughes said airlines will meet the challenges.

"The aviation industry has a long history of being innovative, agile and prepared for the unexpected," he said.

For United, Busch said its primary role will likely be transporting the vaccine internationally. He expects freighter services, such as UPS and FedEx, to handle most of the domestic air transport. 

United Cargo's Covid-19 task force, he said, has worked diligently to prepare for transporting vaccines in a deep freeze. United warehouses aren't equipped to keep items as cold as what the Pfizer vaccine will require, so the carrier is planning to transfer loads directly from aircraft to vehicles that do have such capability.

As for onboard operations, the task force has been delving into the question of how much dry ice United can safely put in an aircraft. 

Busch said that although United is mainly a passenger airline, helping with distribution of Covid-19 vaccines is core to its mission. 

"We've furloughed a lot of our colleagues, and this is one way we can position ourselves to bring them back," he said. 

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