updated - September 18, 2021 Saturday EDT
Probably never before in the world of peacetime air cargo distribution has so much importance been placed on the need to ship vast amounts of vaccines, urgently and globally.
Both the emergence of the COVID-19 virus in late 2019, followed by the semi-miraculous arrival of several vaccines at approximately the same time, posed a massive challenge for global air cargo companies. As quickly as vaccines rolled off the production lines they needed to be transported to every corner of the planet safely, under the right conditions, and as fast as possible.
In the past, the global distributing of vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical machinery, or personal protection equipment was always considered as being a time-sensitive process, but never before had the urgency been so great.
Before the pandemic, passenger aircraft 'belly cargo' accounted for approximately 50% of all global air cargo annually. With the grounding of almost all passenger airlines - 4.5 million flights - that capacity was slashed dramatically, causing worldwide air cargo distribution problems of gargantuan nature. The air cargo industry needed to react quickly, and decisively to the new and pressing challenges of global logistics in uncharted conditions.
To guarantee that the quality of the vaccines would not be altered by air transport, vaccines have to be handled following international transport regulations, and the terms demanded by the manufacturers - meaning controlled temperatures and reaching their destination as quickly as possible.
Among the distribution problems being faced by the air cargo industry were:
The ready availability of temperature-controlled storage and transport equipment.
Personnel trained in the movement of time and temperature-sensitive medicines.
Assessing the availability of monitoring systems capable of ensuring the integrity of the vaccines before, during, and immediately after transportation.
Vaccines are required to be stored and shipped in a temperature-controlled environment. However, many refrigerants are regarded and classified as dangerous goods and need to be handled accordingly.
Many new aviation and governmental regulations to be faced and overcome.
Once these concerns were faced and resolved, the scene was set for the global distribution of billions of vaccines to combat the growing pandemic.
The beauty of air cargo transport is that it is fast, reliable, global, secure, it reduces the need for excess packing, warehousing, and insurance costs, plus, goods transported by air cargo are easily tracked using agility shipment tracking software.
Making the case for the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the merits of air cargo - its speed, efficiency, trackability, security, and reliability - far outweighed the merits of any other form of transport.
Pre-COVID, air cargo accounted for almost 2% of all pharmaceuticals shipped annually, generating global cargo revenues of up to $US2.5 billion. These statistics alone were enough to prove that within the contract air cargo charter industry there already existed professionals and specialists with vast experience of vaccine supply chains and keen working knowledge of accelerated global logistics.
The speed of air cargo for distribution is the most important factor in the whole vaccine equation. Working on the premise that the faster the world is fully vaccinated the faster we can get back to our 'normality', many governments joined forces in the purchase of the newly developed vaccines and began the process of matching delivery dates with roll-out rates.
To match these roll-out dates, air cargo specialist companies were tasked with ensuring vaccine deliveries from suppliers were in-situ where and when they were needed. These additional factors meant that governments, supply chain partners, humanitarian organisations, and vaccine producers were reliant on the professionalism and expertise of air cargo charter specialists.
Thankfully, using their full range of skills, including distribution by air tracking, safety consciousness, and appreciating the full weight of the task at hand, professional cargo charter companies rose collectively to the challenge of ensuring speedy global roll-out.
To avoid vaccines losing their medicinal viability, their transportation by air requires rigorous adherence to handling, movement, and storage regulations. This problem has been exasperated by the reduction of air freight capacity - by both passenger and freighter aircraft - and the limitations of pandemic global connectivity.
Cargo, such as vaccines, have a high value and a greater degree of sensitivity whose environment must be meticulously secured and monitored throughout transport - both in the air and on the ground. Additionally, the transport environment must conform to international regulatory stipulations as set down by the EU Good Distribution Practices, the US Federal Drug Administration, and the standards for the movement of temperature-controlled products outlined in the IATA's Temperature Control Regulations.
Should any link in the vaccine supply chain be broken, the viability of the medications could be compromised drastically. Air cargo transport is just one such link in the chain and must effectively fit with all other stages both pre- and post-transport. It is one thing to effectively transport the valuable cargo successfully from producer to destination, but the shipping story doesn't end there. Preparations must be made for all eventualities, such as delays, ground handlers being unavailable, or problems with logistics for the next stage in the chain. Only highly experienced air contract transport cargo companies can provide such a level of expertise.
During the height of the pandemic, many passenger airlines converted their fleet to freighter transport (preighters). This was a highly agreeable solution for the transportation of PPE cargo, however, as it may be impractical to ship temperature-controlled vaccines and medical supplies in the cabins of passenger aircraft, the vaccine's manufacturers may be reluctant to allow their products in such a fashion.
Once again, these are some of the most important reasons why long-established cargo charter companies were quick to come up with solutions to many of the initial problems posed by the vaccine roll-out. As a vital part of the distribution transport supply chain, cargo specialists had to quickly become familiar with all of the requirements for the safe and secure handling of vaccine shipments.
Many cargo companies had to review their practices, add additional specialist personnel, indulge in new training programmes, and ensure that all storage space was adequate and technically compliant with regulations.
However, as an industry that has successfully handled many changes over the years, the transportation of the hugely valuable vaccines was in safe hands.
The fact that we are seeing vaccines being rolled out all over the world today is a testament to the flexibility of the air cargo industry. At the beginning of 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic, the industry was turned on its head by the loss of 50% of its cargo-carrying capacity via belly cargo.
Passenger airlines repurposed and refit their aircraft for use as freight-carrying cargo aircraft. PPE shipments were carried in the passenger section of the aircraft allowing the entire industry additional carrying capacity. Other airlines converted some of their passenger aircraft into freighters that would serve them into the future and long after the pandemics subsidence.
At the same time as the world was shutting its doors and people were being forced to stay at home, an e-commerce explosion occurred. Orders from online shopping outlets increased exponentially, resulting in the need for even further cargo-carrying capacity. Passenger airlines switched to cargo contract airlines to fill the gap as online sales continued to go through the roof. Somehow, the industry stayed abreast of the demands being made of it.
Then, with the roll-out of vaccines more lessons had to be learned, and quickly. New procedures had to be adapted into the old. Specialist cargo charter companies paved the way, testing new waters, becoming familiar with new regulations and the new demands being made on the entire industry.
As was said earlier, the growing roll-out of vaccines around the world is visual proof of the industry's continuous versatility and adaptability.
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