After successfully managing the huge challenge of keeping PPE, Covid vaccines and other goods flowing, air freight’s pharma logistics leaders are building on any lessons and ‘accelerator’ effects triggered by the pandemic, reports Donald Urquhart
In a world turned on its head by the global pandemic, normal life, interactions and many business models clearly changed dramatically and rapidly – not least for the air transport sector. But the world required air cargo to keep functioning, especially its role transporting vital healthcare goods and products, including pharmaceuticals and vaccines.
Despite significantly reduced and disrupted air freight and personnel capacity, and even before shipping of the vaccines that are key to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, air freight “was the only and fast way for providing the personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and civilians worldwide”, Frank Van Gelder, secretary general of air freight pharma best practice association Pharma.Aero, reminds us.
“We showed a flexible adaption to the new normal,” despite the many difficulties – including a lack of correct information to match the operational needs, and other “acute surprises” in the operations of the cold chain, such as concerns about limited dry ice supplies, he notes.
Headstart for some
Nathan De Valk, head of cargo product and network development at Brussels Airport (BRU) and chairman of Pharma.Aero, says the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic made it clear that a vaccination strategy was the only way out, and that BRU would play an important role.
“With a large concentration of pharmaceutical shippers near Brussels, and a world waiting on the much-awaited vaccines, our existing expertise and pharma infrastructure gave us a headstart,” he notes. As a leading pharmaceuticals hub in Europe, Brussels Airport already had a well-established track record for specialised solutions for high-value, as well as time- and temperature-sensitive shipments.
Even before the pandemic struck, BRU was continuously growing its dedicated specialised pharma warehouses, reaching more than 35,000 sqm at the airport, making it the largest concentration of this type at any airport in Europe.
That capacity was put to the test as the global vaccine effort ramped up in the beginning of this year, with BRU Cargo shipping more than 300 million doses of vital vaccines in, out or through the airport, with the various segments of the air cargo sector contributing to this effort, De Valk notes. This includes vaccines flying on the network of DHL Express, on the full freighter airlines operating out of BRU, and also the many ‘passenger freighter’ operations that have been specifically serving BRU to fly vaccine shipments.
The airport’s close collaboration with Pfizer was also an important factor, highlights Danny Hendrikse, vice president of Intercompany Operations at Pfizer. “Brussels Airport has been an integral partner for us in the rollout of Comirnaty (the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine). The Brussels Airport team and the BRUcargo community ensured a high-quality approach to handling the vaccine, as well as to the expected upscaling of transport needs via the airport over (the) coming months,” Hendrikse adds.
For Pharma.Aero, the Covid-19 pandemic has challenged but positively influenced the air freight of pharmaceuticals. The association says that an acute situation like the pandemic that the industry had no way of preparing for acted as a perfect “accelerator” for new ideas. This included digitisation – and, in particular, holistic sharing of more detailed industry data.
Technology has been an important way to communicate and collaborate as an industry. This includes being able to include the pharmaceutical shippers in enabling their access to valuable information in order to prepare and adapt existing processes.
Lufthansa Cargo highlights it had already invested heavily in relevant ground infrastructure before the pandemic and as a result was well positioned with its pharmaceutical hubs in Frankfurt, Munich and Chicago. It also has some 30 CEIV-Pharma certified stations worldwide, giving it one of the world’s largest airline pharmaceutical networks.
That includes a large number of additional stations with capabilities for handling temperature-controlled cargo worldwide. The carrier also stresses that it has been “constantly” working to improve services for its customers, “for instance through digitalisation. For example, we aim to increase transparency along the supply chain of pharma shipments with IoT as a key element, to create additional benefits for all involved parties,” the carrier says.
De Valk says BRU “stepped up and launched our local BRUcure taskforce, which currently comprises 42 companies operating at Brussels Airport”, with the community grouping Air Cargo Belgium a key partner in this initiative.
To reach the goals and the high standards that were set within BRUcure, four main working packages within the BRUcargo community were created: pharmaceutical capacity; shipper requirements and the creation of a guideline document; a digital solution; and stakeholder validation.
BRUcargo also brokered a mutual ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between its taskforce members to share capacity when required. “This clearly underlines our community approach mentality here at BRUcargo,” De Valk notes.
As the COVID-19 vaccines were new for everyone, there were information gaps around shipping requirements leading to the taskforce creating a guideline document based on the shipper’s requirements – sourced through one-to-one sessions with pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, GSK and MSD.
“One of the pharmaceutical shippers’ requirements was to offer full transparency of several parameters throughout the airport supply chain,” says De Valk. He explains that Brussels Airport assigned its BRUcloud partner Nallian to provide a digital solution for the community, leading to the creation of CargoFlow Explorer.
Currently a work in progress, this digital data visualisation tool can be used for all pharma shipments (PIL), not only for Covid-19 shipments. The airport proudly points to Singapore Changi (SIN) and Miami (MIA), which are both investigating the use of CargoFlow Explorer as well.
And the airport launched the BRUcure Readiness label which, after validation, indicates that a company is fully geared up to securely and efficiently transport Covid-19 vaccines.
Meanwhile De Valk says there has been an increase of investments in infrastructure dedicated for the handling of life sciences and medtech shipments at Brussels Airport.
“All operators at the airport benefit from the community efforts to specialise in the pharma segment, resulting in additional volumes being attracted to and handled at Brussels Airport,” he notes. “We also see a clear focus in our cargo community to continuously improve the handling quality for these time- and temperature-sensitive shipments.”
Extended pharma acceptance checklist
An example of how the airport keeps pushing for innovation and improvements, is its ‘extended pharma acceptance checklist’, De Valk says.
This consists of twelve additional questions on top of the existing six IATA pharma acceptance checks. This initiative was backed by all of the airport’s ground handling agents, which will be implementing it on a standard basis for the acceptance of all shipments booked as pharma.
The eighteen checks have been incorporated into BRUcargo’s recently upgraded pharma dashboard and feeds directly into the airport’s BRUcloud cargo community platform, with the dashboard acting as a barometer to constantly check the quality level of pharmaceutical shipments flowing through Brussels Airport.
Strengthened cold chain procedures
Similarly in Asia, Korean Air says it has strengthened its cold chain procedures and infrastructure, and reviewed all aspects concerning vaccine transport, such as maintaining different temperature conditions for each manufacturer. Already experienced in transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products requiring cold-chain solutions, Korean Air received CEIV Pharma certification from IATA in 2019.
“We are working closely with multiple special container operators to meet the various requirements from our customers,” a Korean Air Cargo spokesperson says. “We have additionally opened a temperature-controlled warehouse (Cool Cargo Centre) at Incheon International Airport this month to accommodate more temperature-sensitive products and improve the service quality while in transit.”
Handling role unfolding
And from a cargo handling perspective, Bernd Struck, Dnata’s senior vice president for UAE Cargo and DWC Airline Services, says the cargo handling company is “excited to see our role in the transportation of vaccines unfolding”. Having invested significantly in its cold chain and pharma-handling capabilities in recent years, Struck says the company is “well positioned to move every pharma and vaccine shipment safely and efficiently, in compliance with the highest international standards”.
The Dubai-based cargo handler also highlights that its facilities at both DXB and DWC were designed with flexibility and unique product handling requirements, taking advantage of the latest technologies. The cold storage areas in the cargo centres are modular, enabling teams to manage changing handling demands with dedicated climate control capability. Web-based monitoring systems are also in place to facilitate real-time management of all areas.
To ensure seamless delivery of temperature-sensitive goods from the warehouse to the aircraft, Dnata introduced ‘cool dollies’ into its operations. These mobile temperature-controlled containers were specially designed to serve the pharmaceutical industry with a closed system, Struck adds.
Technology needs rising
Aside from the sharp impact of the pandemic, “we see a trend in which more technology will be needed for the future”, says Pharma.Aero’s Van Gelder. “This is driven by the constantly increasing value of the products that will be shipped by air.”
While volumes may not dramatically increase worldwide, the value per kilo shipped by air definitely will. “This will impact the service level agreements and operational processes of the air freight industry,” he notes.
Key further trends
Van Gelder highlights some further key trends from Pharma.Aero’s Master Class event in September. These trends include:
Pharma logistics growth being driven by population and disposable income, but also through next-generation pharma such as the Advanced Therapy Medicinal Product (ATMP).
Pharma goods are increasingly valuable which requires special security handling protocols, in addition to full trace-and-track capabilities.
Factors like reliability, transparency, sustainability and security are increasingly being viewed as critical parameters for pharma logistics.
Pharma distribution models are changing rapidly, with e-commerce distribution platforms disrupting the classic distribution.
Big data and technologies like artificial intelligence and advanced analytics will steer future decision-making, and these applications will become integral in the future.
Broader air freight sector issues
Some of these trends are reflected in Lufthansa’s view of the evolution of the wider air freight sector. “The usage of innovative and modern IT solutions and digitalisation in general remain important topics in our industry,” the carrier notes. “Additionally, we are expanding our engagement in climate protection initiatives in order to reduce our carbon emissions even more. In cooperation with DB Schenker Lufthansa Cargo performed the first CO2 neutral freighter flight and now offers a regular connection covered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).”
Standardised pharma audit process
For BRUcargo, continual quality growth is key and it is working to roll-out a BRUcargo-wide standardised pharma audit process. Maintaining and improving quality is a top priority, the airport cargo company says, adding that this initiative will be shared with its cargo community, “so that we can all share the benefits”.
On a more global scale, De Valk sees “a lot of value in collaboration between airport communities.” He says great results have been achieved with Pharma.Aero, and over the past year, a lot of momentum has been building within the Pharma.Aero membership.
“Many new members have joined our neutral collaboration platform and several specific innovation projects were launched, such as using UAVs in the pharma and humanitarian air cargo sectors, pharma corridor mapping, and CEIV validation,” he highlights.
While Covid-19 has presented and continues to present significant logistics challenges, it has also highlighted a number of lessons including the importance of collaboration and building resilience in the pharma supply chain, believes Pharma.Aero, which urges: “Lessons learned during this pandemic should be integrated into future supply chains for better preparedness for other major events in the following decades.”