The vaccine is a key tool to help all the countries recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and some vaccines have just been approved, produced and made available for distribution.
Time is critical and the aviation industry is under the spotlight as the world is watching it prepare and organize one of the biggest logistical challenges of human history.
First of all, vaccine doses are not just like any other cargo that airlines are used to transport: they must be transported and delivered quickly after their production in order to ensure their quality. On top of this, the entire supply chain (by road, train and air) must comply with very restrictive and specific temperature limitations. Many airports around the world are, as we speak, building extra cold-storage facilities to keep doses at their required temperatures before and after the flight.
Handling such a temperature-sensitive cargo also requires large-scale staff training and robust temperature monitoring capabilities to ensure the integrity of the vaccine.
Secondly, given the severity of the global situation and the limited initial availability of vaccine doses, the latter have become a sensitive commodity that can cause security threats and be the target of theft and tampering in some areas of the world.
The biggest challenge of them all is, without any doubt, air connectivity. Covid19 has hit our industry particularly hard, meaning many airlines are currently running a downsized regular flying schedule.
One could think that passenger airlines’ shrinking their route networks would not affect the transportation of cargo. But that would be wrong – in fact, between 45 and 50% of worldwide air cargo is typically carried in the belly holds of passenger aircrafts.
Earlier this year, passenger airlines have joined forces with cargo airlines to establish a global cargo lifeline allowing the quick delivery of life-saving medical supplies, respirators and protective breathing equipment.
Once more, the World is now relying on the aviation industry to coordinate a swift and equitable delivery of life-saving vaccines which could unlock the world and its global economy by protecting people that are most exposed to the virus.
The issue is that since Covid-19 appeared earlier this year, the global air connectivity has dramatically reduced. And the size of the delivery is enormous: IATA estimates that delivering just one dose of the vaccine to 7.8 billion people would fill 8.000 Boeing 747 cargo airplanes! Unfortunately, there are only 2.000 cargo airplanes in operations in the world, and only a small portion of these are Boeing 747s.
Passenger airlines are the ones which have suffered the most from the pandemic, while cargo airlines and private aviation airlines have comparatively done much better. It has become apparent that passenger airlines will need to help cargo airlines facing what Bloomberg described as “the mission of the century”. This vaccine air lift is going to need a vast number of passenger aircrafts to be temporarily converted into cargo aircrafts to transport the doses in their holds or even in their cabin.
This comes as great news to airlines as initially, they had not anticipated the vaccination to start until the middle of next year. Now, it looks likely that many countries will get access to the vaccine as early as January 2021, while some countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom have already started their vaccination campaigns in December. This is a very welcome sight as IATA had estimated that vaccine and tests transportation could support global travel at 50% of the 2019 levels in 2021, with significant gains later in the year.
Many passenger airlines, such as Lufthansa, United and American Airlines, have started to remove seats from passenger aircrafts to be able to carry more of the valuable cargo.
Several airlines executives predict that the vaccine transportation itself could help airlines bring back parked jets and start reopening routes.
As major airlines are preparing to ship the vaccine to hundreds of locations around the World, they are hoping to sell passenger tickets on some of those flights too. Then, when the vaccine is distributed, more passengers can in turn travel safely and avoid quarantine regulations, which will pave the way for the recovery of the aviation industry.
IATA Press release 70: The time to prepare for Covid-19 Vaccine transport is now
Reuters: US Airlines say vaccine cargo could help restart passenger flights
Bloomberg: Airlines face Mission of the Century for Vaccines
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