Top Picks For You

Airlines Are Carrying out the Mission of the Century

This is how global carriers are handling COVID vaccine distribution.

There’s good news coming from different countries. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has gained Emergency Use Authorization in the U.S. The same vaccine is being used in the U.K. and Canada and is likely to be approved by the European Union in the next few weeks. Moderna-National Institutes of Health also got approved in the U.S. last week and AstraZeneca-University of Oxford is fast approaching the finish line.

The frontrunner, Pfizer’s vaccine is more than 90% effective and is administered in two doses, but here’s the catch: it requires ultracold storage, at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Pfizer is using trucks and flights to ship the frozen vials from its centers in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, to various hospitals and health care facilities in the U.S. Its manufacturing sites in Belgium and Germany will be crucial for European countries.

As manufacturing increases, more vaccines will be delivered to countries—Pfizer has the capacity to manufacture 1.3 billion doses by the end of next year; Moderna 500 million doses and AstraZeneca two billion doses. Distribution to different parts of the world is a herculean task and one that will take months to deliver. Rich nations around the world have already pre-ordered about 4 billion doses from potential candidates (which has raised concerns over access to poorer nations who will have to wait for months, if not years, to get vaccinated).

Continue Reading Article After Our Video

Recommended Fodor’s Video

For airlines, the task at hand is to airlift these billions of doses safely. Scrambling to survive after the pandemic hit, carriers have reduced their capacity and networks are limited, which is the first challenge (airlines use passenger planes to transport cargo, but with fewer flyers, they will have to primarily use freight planes). Airlines that specialize in cargo will be able to process the doses faster, while many others need to prepare for multiple factors in this critical supply-chain.

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored and transported in subarctic temperatures—wide-body jets are better equipped for that. It is shipped in temperature-controlled, suitcase-sized boxes with dry ice and a GPS temperature tracker, so staff handling these would have to be trained. The temperature needs to be maintained or the vaccine will go bad, and there’s only a small window to get it to people who need it once it leaves the facilities; one flight delay and it can throw off the whole operation. Moderna, which has an efficacy of 94.1%, doesn’t need to be stored in ultra-cold temperatures—a normal freezer can meet its requirement of minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, making it more convenient.

And then there’s also a major security concern because these vaccines are highly valuable. A flexible global network and fewer quarantine restrictions for crew will also play a role in this global drive, International Air Transport Association (IATA) said.

To get a single dose of the vaccine to 7.8 billion all over the world will take 8,000 Boeing 747s, IATA has established. “Safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry,” said Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO of IATA. “But it won’t happen without careful advance planning. And the time for that is now.”

Even before a vaccine was approved, many airlines had started taking measures to ensure they were ready for this complex mission to save the world. Here’s what they are doing now.

American Airlines

The first phase of vaccination in the U.S. has begun, with FedEx and UPS handling the majority of the shipment. But on December 14, American Airlines shipped its first consignment of COVID-19 vaccine out of Chicago’s O’Hare International. Pfizer vaccines were brought to the airline in a truck and were taken on a Boeing 777-200 to Miami.

“The trial flights simulate the conditions required for the COVID-19 vaccine to stress test the thermal packaging and operational handling process that will ultimately ensure it remains stable as it moves across the globe.”

Jessica Tyler, American Airlines Cargo President, said, “We were able to mobilize within hours of getting the call to move thousands of doses. We know this is the first of many shipments to come, and we are ready to scale our operation as additional vaccine is produced and ready for distribution.”

American Airlines has had a task force team since the summer to carry out the deliveries. In fact, last month the airline’s cargo team operated trial flights from Miami to South America on Boeing 777-200. The statement declared, “The trial flights simulate the conditions required for the COVID-19 vaccine to stress test the thermal packaging and operational handling process that will ultimately ensure it remains stable as it moves across the globe.”

The airline calls itself an expert in handling cold-chain logistics, with a network of temperature-controlled facilities (150 cities in 46 countries) and expertise in handling critical cargo. It has been delivering PPE, testing kits, and components for vaccine trials since the pandemic began.

United Airlines

United was the first commercial airline to bring the Pfizer vaccine to the U.S. It operated five cargo flights from Brussels to Chicago in early December and is now transporting vials in the bellies of passenger aircraft.

Although the Pfizer vaccine comes in a cold container, United had to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to increase the quantity of dry ice to keep it at the optimum temperature. Dry ice is used as a refrigerant that’s necessary for the shipment of these vaccines, but it’s classified as a dangerous good because it releases carbon dioxide gas when it sublimates, which can cause suffocation and incapacitation. The FAA has allowed airlines to carry five times more dry ice (up to 15,000 pounds) than before to safely transport the vaccine—airlines will be able to carry one million doses on a Boeing 777 flight.

The Wall Street Journal reported a spokesperson for United saying they’re taking all precautions to safely handle it. This will mean monitoring carbon dioxide levels and training staff who will move the containers. According to NPR, United also changed how it handles cargo to efficiently unload the vaccines from planes, by parking directly behind the cargo. “It significantly reduces the amount of time that it takes us to bring that piece of freight from the airplane through our warehouse and onto a waiting truck,” said Chris Busch, Managing Director of Cargo in the Americas for United Airlines.

Delta Air Lines

After trial runs on cargo-only flights in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America, the Atlanta-based company delivered Pfizer’s vaccines from Detroit to Atlanta and San Francisco.

“Within three hours of being engaged, Delta Cargo had the vaccines in hand and on their way,” said Rob Walpole, Vice President of Delta Cargo, in a December 16 press release. “Our successful COVID-19 vaccine shipments this week prove what we’ve known for a long time: that we’re ready and able to take on more in the all-hands-on-deck domestic and global distribution effort of this life-saving vaccine.”

Early in December, Delta announced its capabilities to handle vaccine shipments. The statement said that it had created a vaccine task force months ago and has “large warehouses and cooler facilities in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York-JFK and Seattle, and a network of 49 certified Pharma airports across the globe.”

The airline has also enhanced its pharma deliveries with a vaccine control tower to monitor the shipment 24/7 and ordered cold containers for the vaccines.


Dubai-based Emirates is collaborating with Pfizer to work on the logistics involved in the distribution of the vaccine around the world. In addition, the airline has set up a dedicated airside vaccine hub in Dubai South. The Emirates SkyCentral DWC cargo terminal will be used to ship in vaccines from various manufacturing sites and distribute them to countries around the world.

“Dubai is well positioned to serve as a gateway and distribution hub…We have the infrastructure and logistics connections, and a geographic location that puts markets representing more than two-thirds of the world’s population within an 8-hour flying radius.”

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Emirates Chairman and Chief Executive, pointed out, “Dubai is well-positioned to serve as a gateway and distribution hub for COVID-19 vaccines to the rest of the world. We have the infrastructure and logistics connections, and a geographic location that puts markets representing more than two-thirds of the world’s population within an 8-hour flying radius.”

The facility can handle millions of vials of vaccines; has temperature-controlled trucking docks and Cool Dollys to keep the shipment safe while transportation. Plus, it has dedicated zones to re-ice and repack. With a combination of chartered and scheduled flights, Emirates is planning to bring the doses to countries that need it most.


Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health has launched Hope Consortium, in partnership with Etihad Cargo; Abu Dhabi Ports Group; Switzerland-based SkyCell, which makes temperature-controlled containers; and Rafed, Abu Dhabi’s healthcare purchasing arm. This initiative is the answer to vaccine distribution challenges that have gripped the world.

Etihad Cargo has already transported five million vaccines in November and two million vaccines in the first week of December after the approval of SinoPharm Vaccine in the UAE.

The government bodies and private experts will offer solutions on storage, transportation, sourcing, inventory management, and air freight that’s needed to manage over six billion doses being manufactured in 2021. Etihad Cargo has already transported five million doses in November and two million doses in the first week of December after the approval of SinoPharm Vaccine in the UAE.

UAE’s national carrier, with its worldwide network and prime location, is ready to serve as a global vaccine hub. “Etihad Cargo’s role in the consortium will leverage our outstanding pharmaceutical logistics expertise and specialized pharma and healthcare service, PharmaLife, the IATA CEIV Pharma certified product capable of facilitating temperature-sensitive cargo between +25⁰C and -80⁰C,” said Tony Douglas, Group Chief Executive Officer of Etihad Aviation Group.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore, too, has activated a task force to enable efficient vaccine distribution around the world. The Changi Read Taskforce has 18 private and government players collaborating to work out the kinks in the safe transportation of different vaccines.

The cargo handlers involved in the process, Dnata, and SATS are building up their cold storage capabilities with temperature-controlled warehouses and truck docks, as well as access to dry ice. Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines has prioritized vaccine cargo and is geared up to store and transport the precious shipment.

On December 20, it released a statement announcing that the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines was delivered in Singapore on a Boeing 747-400 freighter. The service brought Asia’s first consignment of the vaccine from Brussels after a trial that was conducted to keep a check on the cool boxes and sublimation of dry ice.

Chin Yau Seng, Senior Vice President Cargo for the airline, was quoted in the press release: “The delivery of this first batch of Covid-19 vaccines to Singapore is an important milestone in the fight against Covid-19, and we are honored to be able to play a part in this. It also served to demonstrate [Singapore Airlines’] and the Singapore air hub’s readiness for the very important job of transporting and distributing Covid-19 vaccines internationally.”

Virgin Atlantic

This U.K.-based airline has been running cargo-only services since summer to bring essentials to the U.K. Now the airline is upping the ante on its global network to get this lifesaving dose. The Pharma Secure service offers a dedicated team, priority unloading at Heathrow, temperature-controlled facilities, and 24/7 support service.

Air France-KLM

Another taskforce was set up by Air France-KLM this summer. The Air France KLM Martinair Cargo has built a cold storage facility at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport Pharma Hub and a cool room is in the pipeline, along with another cold storage facility at Charles de Gaulle Airport Pharma Hub in Paris. It was also reported that the airline company is running trial runs for vaccine distribution with dummy shipments, much like other airlines.

Air France-KLM has an extensive network for pharmaceuticals and is an important hub for Europe, but the vaccine volume now—along with temperature challenges—will test the waters. Adriaan den Heijer, Executive Vice President Air France-KLM Cargo, said, “We’ve established partnerships with many of the parties in the logistical chain, including forwarders, trucking companies, container providers, airports, cargo/logistical associates, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare-related institutes and authorities. We believe that strong cooperation between partners will be essential to successfully execute this logistical challenge.”


Germany’s Frankfurt Airport is also stepping up to handle millions of vials that will go around the world. It is Europe’s largest hub for pharmaceutical cargo and Lufthansa Cargo will be taking on this mammoth task. One of the world’s heavyweights when it comes to cargo, Lufthansa has employed a task force to carry out the operation. It upgraded its facility at Chicago with a $5 million investment before the pandemic and now it can transport two to 10 million doses every day, Business Insider reported.

Cathay Pacific

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has expanded its cold storage facilities at the cargo terminal to make space for 1.5 million more doses of vaccines. It can currently hold 7.1 million doses a day and the new addition will bring the number up to 8.6 million. To make the transportation more reliable and efficient, it has invested in a track-and-trace system, a service it will be offering free of charge for COVID-19 vaccine shipments.