In cooled warehouses on the fringes of Frankfurt airport, Deutsche Lufthansa AG is preparing its depleted fleet for the gargantuan task of airlifting millions of doses of the vaccines meant to end the global pandemic.
Lufthansa began planning in April in anticipation of the shots that Pfizer to Moderna and AstraZeneca are developing in record time. A 20-member task force is at work devising how to fit more of the crucial payload onto the airline’s 15 Boeing Co 777 and MD-11 freighters, along with hold space in a vast passenger fleet now flying at just 25% of capacity.
Laid low by a Covid-19 outbreak that’s decimated passenger demand, airlines will be the workhorses of the attempt to eradicate it, hauling billions of vials to every corner of the globe. It’s an unprecedented task, made more difficult by the carriers’ diminished state after culling jobs, routes and aircraft to survive a crisis that’s reduced air traffic globally by an estimated 61% this year.
“This will be the largest and most complex logistical exercise ever,” said Alexandre de Juniac, chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association, the industry’s chief lobby. “The world is counting on us.” IATA estimates that the equivalent of 8,000 loads in a 110-tonne capacity Boeing 747 freighter will be needed for the airlift, which will take two years to supply some 14 billion doses, or almost two for every man, woman and child on Earth. It’s a tall order, given about one-third of the global passenger fleet is still in storage, based on data from Cirium.
Katherine O’Brien, the World Health Organization’s head of immunisation, likens the task of distributing the vaccines after the months-long development sprint to summiting Mount Everest having reached base camp.“The climb to the peak is really about delivering the vaccines,” she said on November 16.