© Devy schiphol klm_87265346
© Devy

As pharmaceutical manufacturers push to complete their trials of Covid-19 vaccines, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is at the centre of a race to make sure the transport of vaccines by air and road will go as smoothly as possible.

There is no doubt that the effort to distribute vaccines around the world will strain the air cargo industry and that it requires collaboration across a broad range of parties – from transport and logistics providers to several government agencies – to manage this. Fast and transparent processes have to be in place, backed by support from the authorities, to ensure a secure and seamless, unimpeded flow of vaccines all along the supply chain.

A broad coalition

The cargo community in the Netherlands has joined forces in the ‘Vaccines Gateway Netherlands (VGN)’, initiated by Air Cargo Netherlands, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The VGN harnesses the expertise of about 60 companies and government agencies.

“We’re in this together. It’s not only the airport Schiphol,” said Ferry van der Ent, director of business development cargo of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Among the participants are also representatives of the airports of Eindhoven and Maastricht, which stand by to shoulder some of the traffic if the volume were to exceed Schiphol’s capacity.

The airport has ample capacity to handle pharmaceuticals, as it does on a daily basis. The focus of the task force is on scenarios that go beyond the range of the existing facilities and processes, Mr van der Ent explained.

The VGN deals with operational and technical aspects as well as with communication and governmental aspects, such as security, safety and clearance. It consists of two working groups, with one looking after operational and technical questions, the other after marketing communication. Within these groups are sub-groups. One sub-group in the operational group deals with airside processes, another with those between the first and second line cargo facilities, while yet another addresses questions like volume forecasts, what types of packaging are used etc.

Preparing for potential challenges

“There are still many questions to be answered,” Mr. van der Ent noted. “How much volume can we expect, and when? What are the temperature demands? Without knowing all the answers, we anticipate and reconstruct scenarios with assumptions.”

One of the assumptions at this point is that Schiphol will mainly handle vaccines produced in the European Union that are exported overseas, but it is possible that it will also be dealing with vaccines imports or such shipments in transit, so the VGN must address all three scenarios.

Over 90% of shipments through Amsterdam are cleared electronically, which usually takes less than a second, so clearance should not be an issue. Nevertheless, the Dutch customs agency is actively involved in the VGN to ensure fast and smooth processes of vaccines shipments.

Mr van der Ent is confident that the authorities will make sure that traffic rights and slots will not be a problem. He is also confident about dealing with a large number of charter flights. “Our experience with PPE flights shows that there is enough flexibility to handle any amount of charters,” he said. “At the end of the day these are humanitarian flights.”

Fast tracks for vaccines

Schiphol has some cool dollies to ensure temperature integrity between the warehouse and the plane, but the number is limited. “Even if you have 20 or 30 dollies, it will not be enough,” Mr. van der Ent said. “That’s why it’s much better to have a fast track in place.”

The Vaccines Gateway Netherlands is looking at fast track and just-in-time options for vaccines to get to the aircraft, which is more efficient and quicker to realise than setting up temporary cooling facilities, he said.

This option also avoids investment in infrastructure that may not be needed after the rush of the coming wave of vaccines shipments. “We hope that high vaccines demand will only be a temporary situation,” Mr. van der Ent said. By some estimates it may be possible to vaccinate the global population in about 12 months.

With smooth access to the aircraft, for Schiphol there should be no need to build additional cooler facilities. GDP regulations allow time to shift pharmaceutical shipments to other cooler infrastructure. For vaccines going through Schiphol this means that they can be moved to the port of Rotterdam or to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, which have ample cooling capacity. This is another element that reflects the broad alliance of players that the VGN can muster for this undertaking.

Establishing fast tracks to airside locations raises issues of safety and security that require the involvement of health and security agencies. If shipments are moved in dry ice, sniffer dogs cannot be used, while x-ray inspection could affect vaccines.

Visibility is essential

Visibility will be a critical factor. As a rule, pharmaceutical manufacturers and the logistics providers they work with having sophisticated systems and tools in place, but it may make sense to establish a platform that the various parties in the chain can access. Cargonaut, Schiphol’s community platform, could serve as such a conduit.

“Cargonaut is in place already, and it’s also convenient for e-airwaybills,” Mr. van der Ent remarked.

It will be advantageous to funnel as much information as possible through electronic channels, but some vaccines shipments may go to destinations that have not set up electronic data processing capabilities yet and require paper documents, so it is necessary to cover that option as well.

While VGN works its way through all these scenarios to be equipped to handle any contingency that may arise, there is also the question how the surge in vaccines shipments is going to affect the regular cargo that flows through Amsterdam.

“No doubt, you still have to accommodate your regular flows,” Mr. van der Ent said. Some traffic may actually benefit from the vaccines traffic, for instance incoming flower shipments from the capacity needed to carry the vaccines out of Amsterdam.

This post is sponsored by Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

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