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Will we really need 8,000 jumbo jets to transport COVID vaccines?

It has been widely reported that the world will need 8,000 dedicated 747 jumbo jets to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine to everyone.

That’s the figure the International Air Transport Association gave last month. DHL Express and McKinsey, meanwhile, estimate that 15,000 freighters will be needed to deliver 10 billion doses over two years.

The reality is, no one really knows how many aircraft it will take. There are so many variables to be determined that it’s difficult to define what the vaccine supply chain will look like. 

Multiple drugmakers are racing to produce a vaccine, and each has different levels of temperature sensitivity, with some ultra-cold versions requiring storage at minus 80 degrees Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit). Some will require one dose, others two. Manufacturers will have different factories, handling requirements and shipping routes.

And not all vaccines will need to be flown to hospitals and other dispensing locations. Much of it will go by truck, with production sites expected to be located in many regions of the world.

Dry ice

Two critical unknowns that make logistics planning difficult now are the type of packaging that will be used and how much dry ice is required. Airlines and freight forwarding companies are urging pharmaceutical manufacturers to start sharing this type of information so they can line up the necessary infrastructure, equipment, personnel and training.

Package size will influence how much product can fit in a cooler or shipping container.

IATA based its calculation for 8,000 large freighters on the fact that one Boeing 777 can carry 1 million to 1.2 million doses of existing vaccines and that 9 billion doses will be required, Chee Meng Wong, senior vice president of cargo services at SATS Ltd., the primary ground handling agent at Singapore’s Changi Airport, said during a media briefing last week by a coalition of air cargo and pharmaceutical interests.

Some vaccines approved for final use could require much more dry ice to keep them frozen during transport.

Dangerous-goods regulations strictly limit how much dry ice — essentially, solid carbon dioxide — can be carried on airplanes because it turns to vapor as it warms. When gas is emitted in a confined space like an airplane, it displaces air and can suffocate the crew. It can also build up enough pressure inside a package to cause an explosion. 

According to the International Air Transport Association’s packing instructions, boxes containing dry ice must be designed to permit the release of carbon dioxide so the package doesn’t rupture under pressure. One way to do this to not tape all the seams. The outside of each package must be marked with the net weight of the dry ice.

“I don’t know if the number of flights is 8,000. I suspect it’s something less than that,” said Neel Jones Shah, global head of airfreight at forwarder Flexport. “But clarity is really important here. The more information that we have, the more prepared this industry feels.”

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