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FAA gives priority clearance to flights with COVID vaccines

Air traffic controllers will move vaccine shipments to the front of the line at airports. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Flights carrying COVID-19 vaccines will receive priority landing privileges from the  Federal Aviation Administration to help with the rush delivery of the lifesaving medicines. 

“The FAA will handle flights carrying COVID-19 vaccines the same way we handled flights carrying personal protective equipment in the spring. Airlines will provide lists of flights carrying COVID-19 vaccines to the FAA’s Command Center, which will alert traffic facilities in the field that these are priority flights. The Command Center will closely track the flights along their routes to ensure they are given priority to the degree possible,” the FAA said in a statement provided to FreightWaves.

Air and truck transport will be the primary means of shipping vaccines from pharmaceutical plants to state distribution sites, with delivery vans doing final-mile delivery. FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) and UPS (NYSE: UPS) are sharing the transportation logistics for new COVID-19 vaccines in partnership with Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and the U.S. government. Other airlines will be involved in importing and exporting vaccines, with the mix and responsibilities of transportation providers evolving as more vaccines reach the market and international immunization efforts scale up.

UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler said during a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday that UPS Airlines will send the FAA a daily list of where flights are landing “so in the event they have difficulties, or back up, landing aircraft in a certain airport, they will know vaccines are coming and they will give priority to those shipments.”

The FAA Command Center monitors air traffic flow to balance demand with system capacity. Specialists regulate the flow of flights to minimize congestion in the national airspace system. They respond to adverse weather, equipment outages, runway closures or other significant events impacting airport operations by adjusting when airplanes can take off and where they go. 

Front-of-line treatment for flights with vaccines on board is one of several steps the Department of Transportation has taken to remove regulatory barriers that might slow the emergency shipments. The department has also temporarily waived hours-of-service limits for truck drivers with vaccine loads and provided guidance to airlines on how much dry ice they can carry per flight for temperature-controlled shipments. 

The Food and Drug Administration is expected any day to grant emergency use authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine and shipments could start moving to states within hours of the decision.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch. / Contact: [email protected]


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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]