This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
The International Air Transport Association on Wednesday urged governments and airlines to prepare for the transportation of Covid-19 vaccines while issuing a warning of the likelihood of severe cargo capacity constraints during distribution. Epidemiologists have raised hopes that at least one of the pharmaceutical companies working on a vaccine could have one ready for use by the end of the year, leaving the airline industry with scant time for preparation.
Speaking during a conference call with media on Wednesday, IATA head of cargo Glyn Hughes listed several major challenges facing airlines as they get ready for the effort. Apart from challenges wrought by the continued deficiency of passenger airplane belly hold capacity, a relative lack of availability of qualified staff, continued airspace and border closures, and crew restrictions stand as major concerns.
“As the world has gone into lockdown at different degrees of severity, dealing with local and national endemic outbreak volumes, that's also meant that there's been a difficulty sometimes in getting qualified staff to the airport to help offload the cargo, to process it through the facility,” said Hughes in reference to the staffing problem. “And because cargo is very precious and it needs to be handled in such a critical manner, it also means that…we've had to work with the regulators to ensure that the staff can continue to operate with valid certificates.”
One dose of the vaccine for each of the world’s 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 Boeing 747 freighters, noted Hughes. Even assuming protection of the virus would require only one dose, such a volume of cargo would stress the world’s air cargo infrastructure beyond its current capabilities. Meanwhile, handling vaccines requires strict temperature control compliance, raising a new challenge considering the sheer volume of doses an already constrained cargo infrastructure will need to transport. If the temperature of the vaccines must fall within a typical range of between 2 degrees C and 8 degrees C, that in itself would present a massive coordination effort. A need to freeze the vaccines to minus 80 degrees C would present a still more challenging scenario, added Hughes.
“When you consider the various temperature changes both in processing the cargo through perhaps an airport, then onboard the airplane at 39,000 feet in the air and upon arrival and then local distribution…it's critical when moving something as sensitive as that, that there are the right facilities in place,” he explained. “And then when you add the scale of the distribution to the magnitude of the challenge of the need for those facilities, you can understand where the industry needs to start preparing now together with governments and the manufacturing industry as well.”
With about two-thirds of the world’s commercial aircraft fleet still grounded and the fact that before the Covid outbreak about half of all cargo flew in passenger airplanes, the air cargo industry will experience still further stress and will need to rely more on ad hoc charter, more passenger airplanes for cargo-only operations, and a slow resumption of passenger services explicitly to distribute the vaccine, noted Hughes.
Finally, security will present a major concern. “Because the vaccines themselves are an incredibly valuable commodity, valuable in the sense that to manufacture eight billion of these, the industry can’t afford to lose, to have lost, to destroy, to have an accident…sadly, theft is a concern,” said Hughes. “All of these issues need to be taken into account…And when you consider that there are probably 200 potential territories and countries throughout the planet with varying degrees of safety, with varying degrees of land-based infrastructure, there would need to be some highly collaborative solutions that would need to be implemented.
“So we urge governments to work consistently with each other, to help the aviation sector in general, with the restart process. It's imperative that there is harmonization and alignment and implementation of the current regulations, which will facilitate a safe return to passenger transportation because the passenger network is critical to support the cargo network when it comes to distributing the vaccine.”