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More airfreight providers put premium on pharma service

Companies that invested in logistics for drugmakers poised to benefit from COVID vaccine

Many logistics companies are building up their networks to handle specialized bio-pharma products. They can charge more for those shipments, but it also requires greater investment than for standard dry goods. (Photo: Kuehne+Nagel)

Several airlines, logistics companies and airports say they are ready to handle a COVID-19 vaccine once one is approved and shipped from factories. The pharmaceutical and life sciences business is more lucrative than general cargo because of its high value and security requirements, but it also requires specialized investments.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says many of its members have sophisticated facilities and the specialized knowledge to process sensitive shipments. The challenge is there aren’t enough facilities in all corners of the world to handle a massive vaccine distribution. The trade association is urging governments, nongovernmental organizations and industry to identify and address areas of need.

Here is a sample of recent developments:


Kuehne+Nagel has opened two pharmaceutical and health care hubs at Brussels and Johannesburg airports for the distribution of vaccines and other products. The facilities have the advantage of direct tarmac access, which minimizes the amount of time medical products are exposed to the elements when being moved between aircraft and refrigerated rooms inside the warehouse.

Both facilities are certified as meeting regulations and guidelines applicable to life sciences organizations that make food and medical products. The new premises have dedicated areas for all ranges of temperature sensitive products. They also have the ability to change or add dry ice as needed for deep frozen shipments in which temperatures need to be maintained minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brussels was the first airport in the world to obtain IATA certification as an independently validated center of excellence for handling pharmaceuticals. The new facility consists of 167,000 square feet of warehouse space and is fully connected to the recently extended Geel Contract Logistics pharma warehousing facility, as well as KN’s European PharmaChain road network.

In Johannesburg, the airside facility provides “cool dollies” — refrigerated trailers — that can hold both lower deck and main deck pallet sizes and protect temperature-sensitive medicines being moved to and from aircraft. 

Frankfurt and Lufthansa

Frankfurt International Airport is a major pharmaceutical hub and has been busy this year handling hospital gear for the COVID response. About 120,000 tons of vaccines, medicines, biologic drugs and related supplies were handled there in 2019. Airport operator Fraport and Lufthansa Cargo, which occupies about two-thirds of the airport’s 40,000 square feet of temperature-controlled handling capacity, recently expressed confidence they can efficiently process a coronavirus vaccine. 

The facilities meet international and European standards for handling drugs. Fraport has been certified by IATA as a pharmaceutical center of excellence and is preparing to open another 6,500 square feet for pharmaceutical logistics.

About 75% of the transport routes at Frankfurt are operated by certified airlines and freight forwarders, according to Fraport and Lufthansa’s cargo arm.

Fraport currently uses 20 ultra-modern thermal transporters to make sure sensitive goods maintain their temperature in the short trip across the aircraft apron to the warehouse.

Lufthansa Cargo, which utilizes passenger aircraft and a fleet of freighters, has 31 pharma stations worldwide, all of which will be IATA-certified by the end of 2021, the airline said. It recently opened dedicated pharma storage centers in Munich and Chicago


In recent years, Air France-KLM- Martinair Cargo made health care-related services a strategic priority by improving processes, training staff and forming dedicated service teams for pharmaceutical customers. It also invested in temperature-controlled infrastructure at its hubs at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The company, which is IATA certified as a pharmaceutical center of excellence, said its investment in pharmaceutical logistics has paid off with significant growth in business.

The airline group said it recently formed a task force to consult with manufacturers and freight forwarders to define what steps are needed to help ship COVID-19 vaccines. It subsequently adapted equipment and monitoring services and increased offered capacity, Enrica Calonghi, global head of pharmaceutical logistics at AFKLMP Cargo, said in a news release. 

Nippon Express

Nippon Express Co. said Tuesday it is in the process of developing pharmaceutical supply chain capabilities in markets worldwide that meet both hardware and software requirements for Good Distribution Practices (GDP). In July, it created a pharmaceuticals business division and a pharmaceuticals logistics quality assurance office to establish uniform standards for operations, training, quality assurance and other processes.

The company is working with Intel to develop a digital platform for internet-connected devices and blockchain technology that can track shipments and provide end-to-end remote-control temperature capability.

Nippon Express said it plans to begin the pharmaceutical service in Japan in February and then expand around the world. It is currently setting up pharmaceutical facilities around Japan to complement the “medical hubs” at Narita International Airport and Kansai International Airport. It has already opened GDP-certified offices in London and Milan, both of which are manufacturing clusters for drugs, as well as India, where generic drugs dominate. It also said it received GDP certification in Chicago and plans to obtain certification in Asian countries.

GDP certification requires pharmaceutical product handlers to meet stringent World Health Organization standards for safety and security.


European logistics operator DSV recently arranged three shipments of pharmaceutical supplies in 100 insulated, air-conditioned containers and flown by LATAM Airlines on three Airbus A350 flights from Amsterdam to Brasilia, Brazil. The active containers had to be kept at 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 Celsius) while the aircraft maintained an interior temperature of between 59 degrees and 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

LATAM Cargo is also certified by IATA as meeting pharmaceutical-handling standards.

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


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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 and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. 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]