Air CargoAmerican ShipperNews

Dry ice: The Russian An-124 freighter’s COVID vaccine advantage

Most aviation professionals don’t envision the Russian-built An-124 super-freighter playing a role in COVID-19 vaccine distribution because it’s an older, drafty plane often used to haul extra-heavy, oversize cargoes. Think helicopters, turbines and trucks. But the An-124 has a unique advantage that could make it useful: no limit on dry ice.

That could be a critical factor when trying to quickly get large amounts of temperature-sensitive vaccine to people around the world, especially in less developed areas and when airfreight capacity is already scarce because of strong trade and widespread closures of passenger operations.

The vaccine developed by Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and German partner BioNTech needs to be kept at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius) or below before opening and Moderna’s COVID vaccine requires storage at temperatures of minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 Celsius). In the absence of freezers capable of subarctic temperatures during transport, lots of dry ice will be needed to ensure thermal containers maintain the appropriate temperatures.

But dry ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide and when it breaks down the vapors are poisonous. A high concentration can be deadly, so aviation authorities limit how much dry ice can be carried in aircraft. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that United Airlines received permission to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight — five times more than usually allowed on a passenger aircraft — when operating in cargo-only mode. And South Korea relaxed restrictions on the amount of dry ice allowed on aircraft, according to Reuters.

No limits

Rules changes aren’t necessary with the An-124 because the more spacious the cargo cabin the more dry ice that is allowed under international dangerous goods regulations. Also, the An-124 has a special ventilation system that is separate from the crew cabin.

Those features and capacity constraints for shippers across the board have motivated Moscow-based Volga-Dnepr Group to offer the mega-freighters to pharmaceutical customers with COVID vaccines. Officials with the company’s global health care team told FreightWaves the An-124 can fit up to 56 small (RKN) or 20 large (RAP) insulated containers. Specialists will tailor shipments to meet each vaccine’s requirements.

Normally, preparing shipments with dry ice is the responsibility of the cargo owner or freight agent, with carriers checking that cartons are properly packed and dry ice limitations are met. Airlines are more involved in planning now because the scale of temperature-controlled shipments being rushed to medical facilities in a short period is far greater than routine transportation. 

Volga-Dnepr, which operates a large fleet of Boeing 747 freighters through its AirBridgeCargo subsidiary, expects the An-124 to be booked for vaccines just as shippers have used the aircraft as an alternative due to the capacity crunch. So far this year, the fleet has transported personal protective equipment, medical gowns and e-commerce packages — lightweight goods that fill planes from a volume standpoint.

“The most efficient freighter within our fleet for vaccine transportation is the Boeing 747 and we put all our efforts to leverage most shipments onboard this aircraft,” Volga-Dnepr’s health care team said in a statement. Given the shortage of airlift, “we think that the healthcare industry will desperately need the An-124 fleet for dedicated projects.”  

The An-124s could also support the COVID vaccine effort by carrying related supplies, such as vials, injectors and packaging, as well as reverse logistics to bring back empty thermal containers, the company said. 

The An-124’s unique features include two internal cranes, nose-and-tail loading with expanded ramps, and multileg landing gear each with 24 wheels that enable it to tilt the fuselage lower for easier loading and unloading.

Volga-Dnepr said it is drawing on its broad experience handling pharmaceutical and dangerous goods to ensure safe and secure delivery of vaccines. The company is certified as a pharmaceutical center of excellence by the International Air Transport Association and knows how to deal with lithium batteries found in some temperature-controlled containers with active cooling systems.

However, the recent grounding of its eight An-124s as a safety precaution while an accident investigation is underway could disrupt Volga-Dnepr’s plans to market the aircraft for vaccine purposes. 

Some planned vaccine shipments on An-124 aircraft are being switched to other freighters within the group, Volga-Dnepr said in its email exchange. “Right now, flight safety is our priority and we will do everything possible to get An-124 into the service and support the world healthcare industry with vaccine transportation.”

Ukraine-based Antonov Airlines also operates seven An-124s, but is less focused on potential vaccine opportunities. “It depends on the requirements for transportation of the containers. We regularly transport sensitive cargo such as satellites that require special flight conditions. If an An-124 or An-225 can meet the technical requirements of the vaccines, we can plan such transportation,” Commercial Director Andriy Blagovisniy said. 

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


Monster-size cargo plane returns to fill air transport void

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

Volga-Dnepr grounds An-124 super-freighter fleet after accident

An-124 mega freighter overshoots runway in emergency landing

Russian airline completes massive airlift of medical supplies for France

Eric Kulisch, Air Cargo Editor

Eric is the Air Cargo Market 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


  1. AN-124s are Ukrainian built planes. However Antonov, the head of Antonov Design Bureau relocated from Russia to Ukraine. He was Russian born! As a result the Russians like to place a claim on the designs!

  2. WRONG article. Antonov is an UKRAINIAN company. Another ignorant that doesn’t know that Ukraine and thr Russian Federation are to separate and independent countries ….
    Is Boing Canadian???? ….

    1. It’s not Ukrainian or Russian, it’s Soviet build and designed. Correct analogy would be: 747 isn’t Washington state aircraft it’s a USA aircraft.

  3. In realtà Gli An 124 , come An 225 sono aerei progettati e costruiti in Ucraina, e nessun altro paese non si possa neanche nominare. Articolo è sbagliato e provocatorio…

We are glad you’re enjoying the content

Sign up for a free FreightWaves account today for unlimited access to all of our latest content

By signing in for the first time, I give consent for FreightWaves to send me event updates and news. I can unsubscribe from these emails at any time. For more information please see our Privacy Policy.