COVID-19 vaccine will require massive airlift

International industry group urges preparations begin now

I took this photo of a British Airways Boeing 747 at London Heathrow airport last year, hoping to once again fly aboard the Queen of the Skies before they were all retired. Fast forward to 2020, and BA, along with most airlines that were still flying the 747 before the pandemic hit, have put them into storage and don’t plan to bring these older, fuel-hungry aircraft back to service.

Which is a shame, because we need them. The International Air Transport Association warned this week that the logistics of delivering billions of doses of any COVID-19 vaccine around the world are more than daunting. “Just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft,” the organization said in a statement.


In case you were thinking that shortly after a vaccine is approved — assuming at least one of the various candidates passes the rigorous Stage 3 trials — that you’d be able to go to your local pharmacy and get a quick shot and all would be well, hold that thought.

Once approved, a vaccine will have to begin manufacture in large quantities. Distribution will require trained staff, temperature-controlled warehouses, tight security throughout, and careful monitoring of the product as it moves from manufacturer to medical worker.

Government and aviation authorities around the world may have to waive tariffs, temporarily exempt flight crews from quarantine requirements, allow temporary overflight and landing rights and grant priority to incoming vaccine-laden flights.

Thousands of aircraft have been grounded and their pilots furloughed since the start of the pandemic earlier this year. If those planes will be needed for this worldwide airlift of life-saving medicine, they have to undergo safety and maintenance procedures to make them flyable again. Pilots need to get into simulators to bring themselves current with 90-day, six-month and yearly training requirements.

Of course, some land transport will take place, depending on where the approved vaccine or vaccines are manufactured and where they need to be delivered. But air cargo, including cargo carried in passenger aircraft, is a critical link in many supply chains, and will be in the distribution of COVD-19 vaccines.

No last-minute save for airlines, transit

Congress came up dry this week, with Senate Democrats shooting down a Republican-backed “skinny” relief bill. The $500 billion bill, even if passed, contained no emergency funding for airlines, Amtrak, transit systems or private bus lines.

Upcoming job losses of at least 35,000 could result as early as Oct. 1, based on previous announcements by American Airlines and United Airlines. Transit systems across the U.S., in need of $32 billion, may be forced to drastically curtail bus and subway service. Amtrak is asking for $5 billion to avoid 2,000 layoffs and dramatic cuts in train schedules on every line. An August 7, 2020 study by DePaul University predicts that “30-40% of the national bus network could disappear without financial relief.”

Down on Main Street, which can’t be seen from Capitol Hill, where families are struggling to pay the rent and small business owners are holding on by the thinnest of threads, Washington will have to answer when the buses stop running.