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Michigan airports support airlift of Pfizer vaccine (with video)

Grand Rapids airport eyed by international carriers for bigger role

An Airbus A300 cargo aircraft being loaded at the Grand Rapids airport with Pfizer's new COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo: Grand Rapids Airport Authority/Sabo PR)

Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, could play an active role in the U.S. and worldwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccine because it is the closest commercial airport to Pfizer Inc.’s (NYSE: PFE) Kalamazoo manufacturing plant.

On Sunday, an Airbus A300 cargo jet operated by FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) left Ford airport for the 90- minute flight to FedEx’s global air hub in Memphis, Tennessee, carrying the first air shipment of the life-saving vaccine. FedEx has a facility at the airport and operates scheduled flights between Grand Rapids and its Memphis hub. 

Historic first air shipment from Pfizer Inc.’s Kalamazoo, Michigan, plant departs Ford Airport in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy: Grand Rapids Airport Authority/Sabo PR)

Lansing Michigan’s Capital Region International Airport also is involved in the highly anticipated logistics operation. UPS (NYSE: UPS) operates an air terminal in Lansing, which is about 80 miles away.

The airport received a UPS shipment from the Pfizer plant Sunday morning, which was immediately placed on a UPS aircraft bound for the company’s Worldport hub, Spencer Flynn, the airport’s marketing manager confirmed. 

“We are also planning on being part of the ongoing distribution process. We expect it won’t be the last shipment to come through our airport,” he said.

More Ford?

Ford Airport has a 10,000-foot runway and dedicated cargo facility. Officials there say ground support and capacity is sufficient to quickly process large quantities of vaccine doses. It is about 60 miles from the Pfizer facility.

Airport officials say they are in the process of lining up other air cargo companies to move Pfizer shipments to international destinations. Four global carriers have expressed interest in transporting the vaccine.

Each of the Asian and European carriers is in a different stage of scoping out the airport’s capabilities and procedures, spokesman Stephen Clark told FreightWaves. The due diligence includes information about how to operate at the airport, taxi movements for aircraft, the availability and type of cargo handling equipment, and resources for crews, he said.

After months of planning, Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership coordinating the U.S. distribution, went into action Sunday morning after the Food and Drug Administration cleared the Pfizer drug for public use. 

Leaving Kalamazoo

The first FedEx and UPS trucks departed the Pfizer plant carrying doses destined for 636 state-designated distribution points around the country. Delivery will involve a combination of air and ground transportation, much of it routed through the FedEx hub and the UPS Worldport facility in Louisville, Kentucky.

Pfizer is managing the logistics and subcontracting transportation to FedEx and UPS. Delivery  data is being shared with federal officials in charge of Operation Warp Speed who are monitoring every package of vials to assure it safely gets to its destination.

The pharmaceutical company plans to supply 50 million doses worldwide by the end of the year and 1.3 billion doses next year. The U.S. government pre-purchased 100 million COVID-19 doses. Pfizer also has contracts to supply the European Union, Canada and Japan. 

The company also has a plant in Puurs, Belgium. German partner BioNTech is producing the COVID vaccine as well.

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


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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]