Previous predictions in pharmaceutical transportation trends, highlighting declining air passenger numbers and air freight demand increasing, have been pandemic propelled. Coronavirus continues causing worldwide disruption and it is anticipated its industry impact will continue throughout 2021 and beyond.

Pandemic response – preighters take off

Pre-pandemic passenger numbers were already on the downturn, however the COVID-19 crisis significantly accelerated that trend. The crisis capacity crunch came as the number of passenger flights plummeted and the ensuing scramble to transport pandemic payloads saw the deployment of hundreds of passenger planes as freighters, known as preighters. 

Despite the sector seeing the grounding of hundreds of passenger planes, earlier than had been initially forecast, which led to a reduction in the availability of cargo space in the bellies of these passenger aircraft, we’ve seen more planes undergo conversions to freighters. 

The preighters’ prevalence looks set to continue throughout 2021 and beyond. Although the air cargo industry faces continuing challenges, IATA predicts an anticipated 25% rise in freight tonne-kilometres this year. However, the ongoing drastic downturn in travel means the loss of a lot of capacity in passenger aircraft, and while freighter aircraft are still present and working hard, fleet growth takes time, so there will be a slower response to replacing some of the capacity lost from the passenger side of the industry.

Large widebody aircraft – grounded or retired

Before COVID-19, it was predicted airlines would start cutting flights from schedules, mothball larger aircraft, decline production options and look to utilise smaller, more efficient aircraft in the future for environmental and economic reasons. All of those decisions have been massively accelerated.

Increasingly airlines are globally grounding their A380s in favour of more modern, smaller jets, which can fly more efficiently than their four-engine aviation counterparts.

With far fewer passengers flying in a pandemic world, the travel downturn has ramped up decisions to park planes, some permanently, further impacting the already dwindling resource of global air freight capacity. 

Sea change in modes of transport

There will be ongoing developments in the sea freight sector, which has an estimated 17 million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) serviceable globally, of which six million containers are routinely turning and carrying freight. 

Uncertainty in sea freight and air freight availability saw pharma companies initially ship everything they could, by any mode of transport available, to get it out to the markets. 

Following months of disruption passenger airlines eventually started flying passenger air craft with cargo in the lower decks and loose load cargo on the upper decks.

I think there will be exacerbated sea freight and sea container availability issues throughout the first half of 2021.  

Given the sea freight situation we will continue to see the utilisation of air freight to transport pandemic payloads. When it comes to economics, without the passengers on the main deck is a much more expensive operational option. However, pharma customers are prepared to pay those premiums to move their product.

The volumetric efficiency on aircraft is critical at the moment because it is such a scarce resource we need to ensure the best use is made of it.  With air freight capacity a dwindling resource, it is even more important to have the efficient packing density of temperature controlled product on such limited airfreight resources.

Vaccines vs. virus – rapid response

As the development of successful COVID-19 vaccines continues at a rapid rate, the world’s first approved vaccines are already being administered as part of ongoing mass vaccination programmes worldwide.  

Temperature-controlled packaging manufacturers continue to play a pivotal part in the global deployment of these approved vital vaccines. Suppliers stepped up to meet the vaccine temperature requirements by adapting existing shipping solutions.

Beyond all of the current vaccines being approved there will be the need to provide boosters. It is going to create a recurring step up in the volume of vaccines being shipped, alongside the flu vaccines being transported and other pharmaceutical payloads every year. 

There will not be a continuous crisis; it will be a continuing trend of smaller aircraft, with reduced air freight capacities, moving pharmaceutical products at temperatures that sea freight cannot do. It really can only fly.

However, there’s not going to be a modal shift from air to sea because sea cannot meet the temperature requirements necessary for these shipments. You get a displacement, whereby COVID-19 shipments, whether vaccines, test kits and reagents or some of the therapies which help with recuperation, like Remdesivir, are flying at almost any cost on a dwindling resource.

The pharmaceuticals, which have more normal temperature shipping requirements, like 2–8oC or 15–25oC, get displaced and in that situation, when the air freight rates get so high, sea freight would normally be seen as a shipping solution. Sea freight will improve in the first six months of 2021 so some of that displacement can take place more efficiently. But aircraft will still be full of the COVID-19 related products.

2021 will see the industry learning to operate in the new norm with everyone getting used to that new norm. Next year we might start to see some improvements and efficiencies but I think this year is about adjusting our planning, our capacities and our operations around this spike in demand and the gradually improving capacity picture. Almost like wearing in a new pair of shoes. 

Dominic Hyde, VP Crēdo™ On Demand, Peli BioThermal