IATA: Air cargo sector must act now to overcome the challenges of vaccine distribution

Air cargo has not only been a lifeline for the financially-troubled aviation sector, it has also acted as a lifeline for global society by transporting PPE and medical items around the planet during the Covid-19 pandemic. The sector still faces challenges though, said Glynn Hughes, global head of cargo at IATA, during a conference yesterday hosted by the association.


Hughes highlighted IATA’s work with regulators which helped to ensure that airport staff and crews could continue operating and processing cargo with valid certificates, despite lockdown measures in place in various countries.

“We’re very pleased with the way that the crew restrictions have been maintained; crew members are not only able to do their work, but in a safe environment too,” he said.

He added: “We’ve also been exposed to where inefficient processes existed when carriers were applying for adhoc charters into and flying over particular countries — critical when transported PPE, which has been vital for frontline medical workers around the world. Air cargo has been the only supply chain moving that critical equipment around the world. It’s been a hugely large challenge to actually overcome some of the broader restrictions and other officials and civil aviation authorities to make sure that permits have been issued in quick fashion.”


Glynn noted that a huge shortages in air cargo capacity has continued to be the biggest challenge faced by the industry in recent months, due to around 16,000 passenger aircraft being grounded.

“To use some of those grounded aircraft in an innovative fashion, about 2,300 passenger aircraft were dedicated to cargo-only operations,” he said.

He noted the role of regulators in allowing passenger aircraft to be used as ‘preighters’ to increase capacity.

“This has required involvement from regulatory authorities; when an aircraft is certified for passenger transport, it’s pre-certified to carry cargo in the overhead bins, under the seats and in approved areas in the cabin. If an airline wants to use seats to store cargo, it requires additional certification.

“In order to secure cargo, specific and unique tracking systems were adopted so that cargo could be safely secured, but again we have to say that it’s been a great collaboration between regulators in the industry to get the appropriate approvals certified and issued in quick fashion.”


The next big challenge faced by the air cargo sector is the significant role it will play in the transportation of Covid-19 vaccines.

“There will need to be nearly 8bn doses and distributed around the world,” explained Hughes. “The volume of that size of shipment would fill more than 8,000 B747 aircraft — and that’s just under the assumption that a single dose is required. If more than one dose is required then you can see that there will be a considerable burden on the aviation sector to help transport these critical commodities around the planet.”

He urged governments to start acting now by collaborating with vaccine manufacturers to find out potential storage and shipping requirements.

“We have to look at the condition upon which these vaccines will need to be distributed,” he said. “A vaccine is one of the more sensitive cargoes that can be transported and if they are, as it were a ‘conventional’ vaccine, then it will need to be transported between a temperature range of 2°C and 8°C.

“We know from a number of WHO coordinated programmes that are looking at potential vaccines, that there are up to 250 different programmes under development with about nine or ten in advanced stages”.

He added: “Once a vaccine is produced, then it is important and imperative that it is distributed safely. There will need to be considerable focus on Africa, Latin America, South East Asia where there isn’t as much potential for production”.

Hughes said that the air cargo industry must start collaborating with governments, UN agencies, manufacturers, airports and other safety and security agencies, to make sure that there are suitable vaccine facilities at the airport of departure, airport of arrival and facilities throughout the supply chain.

“It’s also important that border processes are looked at so that cargo such as vaccines can be processed quickly and that permits can be processed quickly,” he added.

Hughes also addressed the issue of capacity when vaccines are ready to be distributed.

“With two thirds of the aviation fleet grounded, in traditional times, air cargo utilised capacity for about 50% of the cargo that’s moved around the planet,” he said. “With the situation being some years away from normality, it means that the air cargo industry will need to rely on adhoc charters, passenger aircraft used for cargo-only operations — as well as the slow startup of passenger services — to distribute the vaccine as long as it can meet the temperature requirements necessary.

“Its important that there are no hold-ups for those permit applications, approval and clearance processes, and also that there are adequate staff in locations at import and export stations to process the cargo quickly.

“Supply chain integrity is critical and has to be maintained throughout the entire journey. It’s imperative that all of the parties get together and work together so that the vaccines actually work once they have been distributed.”

Finally, Hughes urged for security issues surrounding the handling of vaccines in the supply chain to be addressed now.

“Vaccines are a valuable commodity. The industry can’t afford to have loss, destroyed or stolen vaccines, so product integrity is critical,” he said. “We urge governments to work consistently with each other to help the aviation sector in general with the restart process”.

“There needs to be harmonisation and alignment to facilitate a safe return to passenger transportation — because a passenger network is critical to supporting the cargo network when it comes to distributing the vaccine”.

Hughes’ presentation at the IATA conference was preceded by an air cargo market update from chief economist, Brian Pearce.

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