The airline industry has been a major beneficiary of the vaccine euphoria. First Pfizer, then Moderna announced vaccine candidates with a promised effectiveness of 90% or more. This excited investors and airline executives alike, with visions of pent-up demand creating packed planes with filled middle seats.
But before potential passengers can be vaccinated and set out on their long-delayed business and leisure journeys, several hurdles must be leapt. The vaccines must be approved by the FDA and other worldwide health regulatory bodies, and manufactured in numbers that can make a difference in ending a worldwide pandemic. Then the real fun begins: the logistics challenge of transporting the vaccines around the United States and the world.
How big a challenge? According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), “providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft.” Meanwhile, the Pfizer vaccine apparently requires two doses to be effective.
Of course, land transport of the vaccines will shoulder some of the load, particularly in developed countries with local manufacturing capacity. And the air cargo industry already has vast experience in transporting pharmaceutical and life science products. These make up 1.9 percent of all air cargo volume and 2.6 percent of total airline cargo revenues, or $2.5 billion.
But the coming flood of COVID-19 vaccines cannot be delivered globally without a major air cargo lift. And there are far less than 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo aircraft.
In World Air Cargo Forecast 2016-2017, Boeing estimated total cargo aircraft in the world at 1,770, of which 550 were defined as “heavy” freighters like the 747 capable of carrying over 80 tonnes of cargo. This August, Air Cargo News said that 300 Boeing 747 freighters were operating, and that 65 main deck freighters had been added to the world fleet.
But this masked a huge loss in freight capacity, as half of all airline cargo was carried in the bellies of passenger airliners, particularly widebodies. Some 4.5 million passenger flight cancellation around the world reduced belly cargo,. Belly freight capacity dropped by 70% in April-July, as widebody aircraft used for international travel were grounded due to the pandemic.
But when the US and Europe scramble to get personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves from Chinese factories, a makeshift fleet of hundreds of passenger aircraft was converted into freighters, called “preighters.” There were plenty to choose from; at the height of the pandemic 16,000 airliners were parked.
Will this be enough to transport the vaccines as they become available? Pfizer, for example, says it expects to produce up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021. But it’s not just a simple numbers game. Further complicating the distribution of vaccines is the necessary “vaccine cold chain” to prevent spoilage.
Both the Modern and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidates require storage at sub-zero temperatures. Each needs to be kept cold throughout the distribution process, from manufacturing to the waiting truck, then to the plane that will carry it across the country or around the world. The cold chain continue with the truck that will deliver it to the hospital, pharmacy or other facility where it will be stored in special freezers until use.
Transporting and storing the Pfizer vaccine is considered particularly challenging, as it has to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius, (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), far colder than most vaccines.
For the first batch of 50 million vaccines that Pfizer expects to produce in 2020, the company said “there are no other main logistics supply chain partners beyond” DHL, FedEx and UPS “working on distribution plans in the U.S.”
Professor Anna Nagurney, a mathematician and logistics expert at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst says transporting and storing the new RNA-based vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna is like moving fresh fish. “If they get too warm or too cold they spoil.”
To prevent this, Nagurney writes that “UPS is adding freezer farms of 600 freezers capable of reaching minus 80 degrees Celsius near UPS air hubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Netherlands. Each freezer will be able to hold 48,000 vials of vaccine and could easily store either the Pfizer vaccine or the Moderna vaccine at the necessary low temperatures.”
While the dedicated freight companies may be able to handle the limited volume of vaccines that can be produced in 2020, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla noted, “As we move into the first months of 2021 then we are going to have much more massive distribution of the vaccine around the world.”
For the process to succeed, airlines and freight companies must realize “It’s not just a box! “ notes Andrea Gruber. Deliveries will be part of a complex chain, says Gruber, head of Special Cargo at IATA. Such high-value and sensitive products may not only require a temperature-controlled management environment (and security) must also follow international regulatory requirements such as EU Good Distribution Practices, US Federal Drug Administration and WHO and IATA’s standards for temperature-controlled sensitive products.
The aviation industry has a long history of meeting such challenges. Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airlines, said, “We’re working on trying to move this Pfizer vaccine in specially designed containers on our planes, in our holds, and in the cabins, and keeping them at that level through the distribution point.”
In fact, the coming crunch may prove a double boon to the airline industry. Obviously, once the vaccines are distributed and in use, passenger travel will come back. But the distribution crunch may first offer an opportunity to the airlines to take aircraft out of mothballs that were grounded by the pandemic, and put their crews back to work.
Here too, there are challenge. At Emirates, almost all its fleet of 115 A380 aircraft are reportedly still parked. And none are dedicated freighters. The A380F was so plagued with delayed that launch customers UPS and FedEx abandoned the project and ordered Boeing 747 freighters instead.
Still, a Malaysian Airlines passenger A380 recently carried 26 tonnes of freight in an all-cargo flight. HiFly removed the seats on its A380 and used it for COVID-19 cargo missions. Airbus has offered cargo conversion kits for the A330 and A350. Meanwhile, other airlines are preparing for the coming demand; Virgin Atlantic recently announced its own pharma service.
Certainly, the dedicated freight companies like FedEx, UPS and DHL will be major players in the great COVID-19 vaccine lift of 2021. But with the pandemic plus “normal” e-commerce, freight capacity is already under strain. DHL, which says it has experienced a 50% increase in inbound volume, recently raised parcel prices for customers across the board.
Despite the challenges, Tim Clark of Emirates told CNBC he was optimistic. “There’s a global imperative to get this done—not only in the West but in the developing world.” And the world’s airlines will play a major part.