The rapid and secure distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will be a key priority this year, to get people and communities back on their feet, rebuild consumer confidence and economic activity, and support the long-term stable growth of the air cargo industry, says Nabil Sultan, divisional senior vice president for Emirates SkyCargo
2020 was a year unlike any other for the aviation sector and the air cargo industry. Although the challenges posed by the near complete suspension of passenger flights and the resulting drop in cargo capacity were massive, the industry reacted quickly to mitigate some of these challenges and keep communities and economies connected to the goods they required – whether these were medical supplies and PPE to fight COVID-19 or food items or commodities for manufacturing and industry.
At Emirates SkyCargo, we deployed our Boeing 777-300ER passenger aircraft as cargo aircraft to make up for some of the lost capacity and to meet the surging demand for the urgent transport of PPE and other medical equipment during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because this had never before been done in the history of our operations, our teams had to work extremely hard to develop a new route network and to work with the relevant authorities and partners to operate these cargo flights, offering about 40-50 tonnes of capacity per flight.
Given the continued demand for cargo capacity, we introduced loading of cargo on the passenger seats and overhead cabins in our passenger aircraft and eventually, we followed this up with our ‘mini freighters’, Boeing 777-300ER with passenger seats removed from the Economy Class to make room for more cargo inside the cabin. We also operated cargo-only flights on our A380 aircraft, making optimal use of our aircraft fleet to meet the demands to transport cargo across the world. We also rapidly reinstated our destination network, reinstating our cargo connectivity to more than 100 destinations between March and June 2020.
Once we had developed our network and a flexible solution for providing adequate air cargo capacity to meet our customer requirements, we then focused on planning for what was coming next and as early as August 2020, we were putting into place a strategy dedicated to harnessing our strengths, capabilities including our ‘fit for purpose’ GDP-certified infrastructure at our hub, to help distribute vaccines to fight COVID-19.
COVID-19 vaccine hub
In October we announced that we were setting up the world’s largest dedicated airside GDP-certified hub for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Overall, we have close to 15,000 square metres of GDP-certified temperature-controlled space that we can use for the storage of COVID-19 vaccines. The aim is to utilise our infrastructure as a global hub for vaccine distribution – especially to developing countries where there may be limited sophisticated cool chain infrastructure for storing COVID-19 vaccines. We can store a large quantity of vaccines in Dubai and then distribute them regularly on our flights to various destinations.
“The aim is to utilise our infrastructure as a global hub for vaccine distribution – especially to developing countries”
In January 2021, we also announced that we were going to be working as part of the Dubai Vaccine Logistics Alliance to expedite COVID-19 vaccine distribution to developing countries. We’re working with DP World, International Humanitarian City and Dubai Airports to support WHO’s COVAX initiative to distribute COVID-19 vaccines equitably. Dubai’s strategic geographic location, well developed infrastructure, and the track record of each partner make the alliance unique and Dubai at the centre of the global response to the pandemic.
As we look at 2021, one of our priorities will continue to be the rapid and secure distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. This is a priority because without the vaccines, people and communities cannot get back on their feet, and this is essential for consumer confidence and economic activity to bounce back. This will also feed into the long-term stable growth of the air cargo industry.
The last year has proven to the world that air cargo plays a crucial role in the rapid and effective transportation of urgently required commodities, and air cargo will continue to play its role as a seamless conveyor belt for transporting goods across different markets in the years to come.