Continuous enhancement of air cargo transportation technologies, better air-ground coordination raise efficiency
With more breakthroughs made in the research and development of vaccines to fight the novel coronavirus, a new challenge of transporting vaccines efficiently and safely has emerged, and a niche has developed within the air cargo industry.
In late November, the International Air Transport Association released suggestions on how to ensure that the air cargo industry is prepared to support the large-scale handling, transportation and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
"If each of the 7.8 billion people in the world needs one vaccine dose, it is expected that 8,000 fully-loaded Boeing 747 freighters will be needed to transport them," said Cai Guoxian, IATA North Asia's regional head of member and external relations, thus providing an estimate of the scale of carrying space needed to perform such a historic feat.
"In addition to the scale of transport capacity, several factors need to be considered in the process of vaccine transportation. Temperature, equipment, qualified operators, monitoring capacity, connectivity and supply chain integrity are all key factors that need to be taken into account," Cai said.
German biotechnology company BioNTech SE and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical (Group) Co Ltd jointly announced on Nov 25 that their lead COVID-19 vaccine candidate BNT162b2 will be evaluated in phase 2 clinical trials to support future biologic license applications in China.
US biotech company Moderna announced on Nov 16 that its vaccine is 94.5 percent effective against COVID-19, making it the second vaccine in the United States to have a high success rate. Moderna's vaccine can be kept viable at -20 C.
Earlier, Pfizer announced its vaccine is more than 90 percent effective against the disease, and the vaccine has to be kept at-70 C.
SF Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of logistics giant SF Express, China's leading air cargo carrier, has been gearing up to transport vaccines once the products hit the market.
As of mid-November, SF Pharmaceutical added 70 new refrigerated trucks specifically for medical product transportation, and the total number of such vehicles stood at 310. It also added new facilities for vaccine storage.
"The company has independently developed an information system that can help track the transportation and distribution path of vaccines and monitor temperatures," said SF Pharmaceutical.
"In addition, the system connects with the monitoring platform of the National Medical Products Administration, and thus it will be able to provide cold-chain storage and transportation services with quality tracing during the whole process," the company said.
SF Pharmaceutical added that with its extensive experience and an ability to integrate domestic and foreign transportation resources, it has the capability to transport room-temperature drugs, drugs that require cold-chain transportation and other medical devices. It can carry out cross-border rapid delivery of biological products via direct flights, the company said.
SF Airlines said China's air cargo transportation technologies and air-ground coordination capabilities must be continuously enhanced to raise delivery efficiency.
"Time slots are critical resources for aviation cargo transportation and its quality growth, and a pool of slots for cargo should be established independently and separately alongside slots for passenger flights to promote efficiency," said Huang Hui, vice-president of SF Airlines.
Meanwhile, Shanghai-based State-owned China Eastern Airlines said it is examining relevant standards for vaccine transportation to effectively prepare for further distribution.
Reflecting on the complexity of transportation challenges, the IATA provided recommendations for governments and logistics supply chains to better prepare for what will be one of the largest and most complex global logistics operations ever undertaken.
"Delivering billions of doses of vaccines that must be transported and stored in a deep-frozen state to the entire world efficiently will involve hugely complex logistical challenges across the supply chain," said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA director-general and CEO.
While the immediate challenge is the implementation of COVID-19 testing measures to reopen borders without the need for quarantine, "we must be prepared when a vaccine is ready," he said.
On Nov 15, Turkish Cargo carried COVID-19 vaccines manufactured in China to Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a connecting flight in Istanbul. The vaccines were loaded inside seven containers equipped with cooling systems.
The carrier said it is committed to transporting COVID-19 vaccines that are ready or being developed. From January to September, Turkish Cargo transported more than 40,000 metric tons of medical products and equipment, which was 50 percent higher than the pharmaceutical shipping volume made in the same period last year.
In order to satisfy growing demand for transporting vaccines, Turkish Cargo has increased its capacity for cold-chain shipments by 30 percent by working with one of the largest suppliers of containers in the industry.
In 2019, air cargo business accounted for 12 percent of total air transportation revenues globally and the proportion is expected to grow to 36 percent in 2020, IATA said.
Next year, the cargo side of business is expected to continue to expand with strong performance. Improved business confidence and the important role that air cargo plays in vaccine distribution is expected to see air cargo volume grow to 61.2 million tons in 2021, and cargo revenue could achieve a historic high of $139.8 billion in 2021, IATA said.
"Cargo is performing better than the passenger business. It cannot, however, make up for the fall in passenger revenue. But it has become a significantly larger part of airline revenues and cargo revenues are making it possible for airlines to sustain their skeleton international networks," said de Juniac.
"The history books will record 2020 as the industry's worst financial year, bar none. Airlines cut expenses by an average of a billion dollars a day over this year and will still rack up unprecedented losses. If not for the $173 billion in financial support by governments, we would have seen bankruptcies on a massive scale," he added.
A net loss of $118.5 billion for the global airline industry is expected for this year, and deep industry losses will continue into 2021. The second half of next year is set to see some improvements after a difficult first half, following the expected reopening of borders with testing and the widespread availability of vaccines, IATA said.
Ma Tao, IATA regional vice-president of North Asia, said the organization has been maintaining close communication with the Civil Aviation Administration of China, and they hope to make joint efforts in the process of reopening borders.
In addition, Ma said China could consider setting up quarantine-free travel bubbles with some low-risk countries and regions to resume leisure travel.
US-based Delta Air Lines said it saw revenue reach a new high in January, but later it experienced a 95-year low in financial income due to the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19.
The carrier has been striving to reduce expenditures and is exploring new income sources, and more than 17,000 employees have recently voluntarily resigned to help cut costs. Yet the airline said it would continue its investments in some long-term projects, such as the building and upgrading of VIP lounges at airports.
"China is leading a global post-COVID-19 economic recovery, and Delta was the first US carrier to resume flight service to China. This year, if China gets the contagion under control and emerges through winter stably, it will help set the stage for the resumption of international travel," said Wong Hong, Delta Air Lines president for China and Singapore.
"Next year is crucial. If vaccines can be transported globally in the second half of next year, it is expected to help restore travel confidence. There are not many carriers that can experience losses for another two to three years," he said.