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United Airlines volunteers to deliver baby formula from London

U.S. arranges fourth Operation Fly Formula mission for Australian infant formula

A shipment of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from Brussels being unloaded from a United Airlines widebody jet at Chicago O'Hare International Airport in December 2020. (Photo: United Airlines)

United Airlines will donate space on passenger aircraft to transport baby formula from the United Kingdom under the U.S. government’s Operation Fly Formula program to shore up depleted domestic stocks so desperate families can feed their infants.

The White House announced that United has agreed to transport Kendamil formula free of charge from Heathrow Airport in London to multiple airports across the United States over a three-week period, beginning June 9. These are the first Operation Fly Formula flights to be donated by an airline.

The Chicago-based carrier will carry pallets of formula on existing scheduled passenger service, United spokesperson Leslie Scott said. When travel business dried up during the COVID pandemic, United made aggressive use of passenger aircraft dedicated for cargo-only service. But the company will not deploy special charter flights to carry planeloads of formula in this case. 

United operates more than 20 flights per day from Heathrow to eight major U.S. cities with a mix of Boeing 767, 777 and 787 jets, according to United Cargo’s June schedule.

“I want to thank United Airlines for partnering with us to get this done — they’re doing it on their own,” President Joe Biden said later during a virtual White House meeting with manufacturers to get an update on production and distribution progress.

The White House also said that another Operation Fly Formula mission will bring Bubs Australia formula from Melbourne to Pennsylvania and California on two flights June 9 and June 11, respectively. This delivery will include 380,000 pounds of infant formula, which can make 4.6 million 8-ounce bottles. Additional deliveries of Bubs Australia formula will be announced in the coming days.

The first two Operation Fly Formula missions were flown by a U.S. Air Force cargo jet and a FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) freighter carrying Nestle-brand formula from Germany. They went to Indianapolis and Dulles airport outside Washington D.C., respectively.  

The Food & Drug Administration last week said it would relax enforcement of import rules to enable Kendal Nutricare to export about 2 million cans of Kendamil formula, equivalent to 54 million standard feeding bottles. The agency on Friday cleared the way for the importation of 1.25 million cans of Bubs Australia formula.

The FDA is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify available overseas supplies of formula while the Department of Defense is responsible for arranging transport with airlines under contract to provide service to the government. The DoD, however, had not logistics involvement with the United Airlines flights, a spokesman said.

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) will transport more than 300,000 pounds of formula, enough to make 3.7 million 8-ounce bottles of food. About 85% of the shipments will contain Kendamil Classic Stage 1 food and the remainder will be Kendamil Organic, according to the White House.

The formula will be distributed and available for purchase at Target (NYSE: TGT) nationwide and online.

President Biden launched Operation Fly Formula two weeks ago as shortages became more acute due to supply chain disruptions and the closure of a major Abbott Laboratories plant over contamination concerns. To date, Operation Fly Formula has delivered the equivalent of 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of foreign-made infant formula.

The Biden administration has also taken other emergency steps to plug the supply hole until domestic manufacturing fully recovers, including invoking the Defense Production Act to force suppliers to give ingredient priority to formula makers and making it easier for companies to import product under temporary regulatory exemptions.

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]