Airport Show
17-19 May 2022

Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports, Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group

Delivering Hope: Aviation is crucial to the success of global vaccination efforts

While air travel was instrumental in spreading COVID-19 across the world, it will also be equally decisive in helping to containing it. The early months of this year have seen millions of doses of various vaccines needing to be transported as quickly and efficiently as possible. With national vaccination rollouts well underway in almost every major nation, air freight providers will undoubtedly need to step up their game in order to keep pace with respective nations’ vaccination targets.

The scale of the task is quite daunting on the surface. IATA chief executive Alexandre de Juniac predicted last year that the equivalent of 8,000 fully-laden Boeing 747s would be needed to transport enough vaccine for all the world’s adult population to receive one dose. Given that most of the COVID-19 vaccines in use require multiple doses to activate the desired level of protection, this means that tens of thousands of 747-equivalents will be needed to get the job done. 

Speed is also of the essence, the cold storage requirements of certain vaccine types, particularly the ‘ultra-cool’ Pfizer vaccine, adds another level of logistical difficult to the process – and a ticking clock. However, this isn’t a new challenge for the industry, with leading cargo handlers having handled this type of shipment for years. In January this year, Lufthansa Cargo was ready to launch a product called Covid-19 Temp Premium, which bundled several of its existing ultra-cold transit and real-time tracking services together in preparation for the surge of worldwide vaccination rollouts. Other handlers have followed suit, demonstrating their ability to respond quickly to the ramp up of demand.

In terms of specific equipment and handling of vaccines, airlines are relying on special containers that use frozen carbon dioxide (commonly known as dry ice) to keep the vaccine at the required low temperature, since aircraft holds cannot be refrigerated beyond ambient conditions. However, this produces a further risk – as dry ice turns to gas mid-flight it can affect the concentration of the gas in the air being breathed by the crew. Excessive concentrations of CO2 in the blood can lead to convulsions, coma and even death. For this reason, airlines are being advised that vaccine containers with dry ice should be carried in the belly of the plane; if they are stored in the main cabins then there should be no passengers on board. Other precautions, such as ensuring that there are working carbon dioxide monitors and sufficient oxygen supplies on board, are another important factor for all handlers to consider, especially since 50% of air cargo typically travels on passenger aircraft.

Crucial for the ongoing effort will be the cooperation of so-called ‘super connector’ regions such as the GCC region. Countries with sizeable airbases close to major vaccine production sites, such as Belgium, Switzerland and China, clearly have a major role to play too. For the Gulf, this sudden boom in freight demand attached to vaccines is of particular importance, given the sharp downturn in fortunes that the region’s aviation faced at the height of the pandemic.

Overall, the vaccine rollouts across the world are providing an invaluable demand boost to the global air freight industry. However, the real boost to overall volumes will only come when passenger levels return. 2020 saw air cargo volumes fall by around 25% compared to 2019, since passenger flight demand plummeted. As vaccinations increase and confidence in international travel is restored, we can expect air cargo fortunes to rise along with that of passenger flights. IATA forecasts a 13% rise in air cargo volumes for 2021, a figure that’s likely to be revised upwards if various vaccination programmes meet with speedy success.