United is the first commercial airline to fly the first FDA-cleared COVID-19 vaccines to the U.S. thanks to a coordinated effort between cargo, safety, technical operations, flight operations and several other teams at United. On behalf of Pfizer, United operated five cargo-only flights in early December, delivering COVID-19 vaccines from Brussels to Chicago.
Source: United Airlines
United Airlines announced Tuesday that transportation of coronavirus vaccines within the United States had begun in the bellies of its passenger planes as the role of airlines in distributing the cans increases.
Hours after the US approved Pfizer and BioNTech emergency vaccine late Friday, logistics giants and passenger airlines began mobilizing sales in the US. This requires close temperature monitoring as the vaccine must be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature-controlled packages will have GPS tracking and other surveillance, executives said, while the Federal Aviation Administration said planes carrying vaccines will receive priority.
United’s first domestic passenger flights with the vaccine came after federal regulators approved the vaccine, a United Airlines spokeswoman told CNBC.
United Parcel Service and FedEx, partners in the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine production and distribution initiative, routinely turn to commercial airlines to fly packages and other merchandise that their networks cannot handle.
“We are now continuing to meet with our partners to try to set a more scheduled vaccine schedule,” said Chris Busch, United’s managing director for freight, in an interview Monday.
United declined to disclose the vaccine transfer because it could violate agreements with customers like FedEx or UPS.
The Chicago-based airline became the country’s first passenger airline to ship the vaccine to the United States last month. It operated five flights from Brussels to its hub at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Boeing 777 aircraft intended for air cargo only. Each aircraft can hold more than 1 million cans, and United has received special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to carry more dry ice than is normally allowed on those flights.
The smaller domestic shipments of the vaccine on passenger flights are the next step in the delivery schedule as the doses are sent to administrative offices across the country.
“Domestically, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a 777. It all depends on the size of the program,” said Busch. “If there is a smaller amount, that could be true for any type of aircraft.”
United routinely carries temperature-sensitive medicines and is in frequent contact with the FAA to ensure safety rules are followed, a spokeswoman said.
Other airlines are also starting to deliver the vaccine.
American Airlines flew its first Pfizer vaccines from Chicago to Miami on Sundaday.
The arrival of the vaccines coincides with the expected record Christmas season. Shippers are paying higher rates when looking for space: the result of an increase in online shopping in the pandemic and the loss of aircraft belly capacity than airlines, which have been reduced by flights around the world.
Busch said United have decided to add flights in some cases to meet cargo demand, which has become a more important part of passenger airline revenue streams this year as the virus keeps many potential travelers off planes.
“We are definitely seeing a strong peak season,” said Busch. He said air freight demand declined in January versus December, but not as much as usual, suggesting a buoyant source of revenue compared to significantly lower passenger demand.
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