Watch Now

Big 3 US airlines gear up to transport COVID-19 vaccines

American operates test flights to check temperature stability; United reportedly pre-positions Pfizer drug

The DoKaSch Opticooler is one of many insulated air containers on the market for shipping medicines and life science products. (Photo: Delta Air Lines)

Major U.S. passenger airlines are rehearsing final plans, brushing up on procedures and lining up the right equipment and personnel to support the worldwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines at a variety of required temperatures.

Moving medicines is not new for passenger airlines, but the scale, urgency and extreme temperature-handling requirements for upcoming coronavirus vaccines is posing challenges for everyone along the supply chain.

American Airlines (NASDQ: AAL) on Monday said it has been conducting trial flights with pharmaceutical and logistics partners from Miami to South America on Boeing 777-200 aircraft to simulate the conditions required for the COVID-19 vaccine and “stress test” the thermal packaging and operating handling process to make sure the products remain stable during transport.

American has already been involved in transporting components for Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trials.

In September, American was certified by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for its capability in meeting the strictest industry standards for handling pharmaceutical products.

American’s largest temperature-controlled facility, with 25,000 square feet, is in Philadelphia, at the heart of a large regional cluster of pharmaceutical companies. It can handle frozen shipments down to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, has charging stations for simultaneous recharging of 30 battery-operated refrigerated containers and a full backup power generation system, according to the company’s website.

United Airlines (NASDQ: UAL) was first out of the gate actually airlifting vaccines. On Friday it flew its first charter flight from Brussels to Chicago with Pfizer’s (NYSE: PFE) ultra-cold vaccine that is poised to hit the market this month, The Wall Street Journal reported.

A United spokesperson would not comment on or confirm the flight for Pfizer. The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy and safety and is expected to give the green light for public use in less than two weeks.  U.S. officials on Monday said distribution of the Pfizer vaccine could begin as soon as Dec. 15, followed  a week later by Moderna’s vaccine, according to CBS News.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement Friday it is providing support for vaccine shipments by “working with manufacturers, air carriers and airport authorities to provide guidance on implementing current regulatory requirements for safely transporting large quantities of dry ice in air cargo.” 

The agency in October established a COVID-19 vaccine air transport team to support Operation Warp Speed and the expedited transportation needs of vaccine distribution. The Wall Street Journal said United received permission to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight — five times more than usually allowed because the vapors are poisonous.

United Cargo President Jan Krems assured customers in a message last week that the Chicago-based airline, which has already operated more than 8,000 mini-freighter flights since passenger service was curtailed in March, has the ability to “upsize our planes and add additional cargo-only flights as demand increases so that we have space for our planned cargo in addition to the vaccines.” Aviation logistics experts have said vaccines could get priority over general cargo if space is limited on some flights. 

One of the tasks of United’s COVID vaccine readiness task force is to make sure there is enough capacity in the fourth quarter and beyond, Krems explained. The airline is also scouting options for adding temporary refrigerated storage space and temperature-controlled trailers to handle any potential surge in vaccines, he said in a virtual presentation with Air Cargo World last month.

In April, United was the first North American airline to lease temperature-controlled shipping containers made by DoKaSch Temperature Solutions. The global rental agreement enables United Cargo customers to lease the German vendor’s electrically powered, refrigerated Opticooler, which can hold four or five pallets, depending on their type. The units do not require dry ice and run on batteries when they can’t be plugged into the electric grid. 

Airlines transport medicines and life science products in active containers with built-in temperature controls that regulate and monitor shipments during transport or passive containers that are cooled with cold packs or dry ice. Many airlines are able to monitor container readouts at operations centers and offer priority boarding to safeguard temperature-sensitive products.

United currently offers more than 15 types of container options to support a variety of temperature needs from frozen to refrigerated or ambient. 

Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) in late October said it too has added the DoKaSch Opticooler to its approved list of containers for pharmaceutical and biologic customers that need to control temperatures between 35.6 and 46.4 degrees F (2 to 8 degrees Celsius) and temperatures up to 77 degrees. Delta has also shipped test vaccines through the summer and fall. Delta Cargo, which is certified by IATA for demonstrated expertise in safely handling pharmaceutical shipments, also expanded its cooler facilities at the Atlanta airport. Temperature-controlled facilities also exist in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York-JFK and Seattle, as well as many international airports.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


AirBridgeCargo transports first shipment of Chinese COVID vaccine

Will we really need 8,000 jumbo jets to transport COVID vaccines?

Solving the dry ice challenge for COVID vaccine

COVID vaccine fallout: General cargo, wait your turn

Supply chains will face multiple scenarios for shipping COVID vaccines

Information fog hinders air cargo readiness for COVID vaccine

Air cargo’s moon shot: Get COVID vaccine to the world

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]