In this guest commentary, Ashok Rajan, Senior Vice President & Head of Cargo and Logistics at IBS Software, addresses the topic of “Why technological innovation will be essential in air cargo's upcoming COVID-19 vaccine transportation odyssey.”
The news that several vaccines are in the final stages of testing will be some of the best news the world has heard this year. But the challenge is only just beginning for the air cargo industry,
which now has the whole world's hopes for a COVID-19-free future resting on its shoulders.
Great news, but a great challenge
Transporting COVID-19 vaccines around the globe will be one of the greatest logistical challenges ever to face the air transport industry. It is safe to say that this huge undertaking will only be possible if the supply chain is faultless, and this will require digital innovation at each step of the vaccine journey to remove all obstacles and eradicate delays.
How much capacity is needed?
The International Air Travel Association predicted earlier this year that it will require the equivalent of 8,000 Boeing 747 freighters to transport the vaccine to the world's population of 7 billion people. However, this assumes that only one dose would be needed when many vaccines, including Pfizer's require at least two. The rise of e-commerce since the start of the pandemic has also increased the strain on cargo aircraft, at a time when many fleets have been grounded due to the decrease in air travel.
New solutions, locations, circumstances….
Since there is nowhere near that many Boeing 747 freighters in existence, much of the burden will fall to passenger aircraft. Whilst some of the major airlines may have some experience transporting sensitive pharmaceutical products and will have converted regular combination aircraft to operate as freighters over the course of the pandemic, many airlines that serve destinations where these major airlines do not fly will have little to no experience.
These companies will have to rapidly adapt to integrate special cargo handling processes in order to transport the sensitive cargo and ensure safe delivery to every destination globally. Deepening the understanding of these processes and extending networks to incorporate destinations where they may not usually fly, will require digital platforms to integrate functions temporarily and also support efficient and secure shipments wherever they are needed.
… processes, and partnerships
Alongside extending networks, airlines must also extend their processes to include third party handlers to integrate processes for which they may not currently have capacity. It can often be challenging for airlines to establish partnerships and agree processes and service level agreements which results in delays. This is simply not an option when dealing with time sensitive shipments like a potential COVID-19 vaccine, which must be kept in a given temperature range during multiple steps and handovers in the journey.
Digital integration is key
Digital platforms that can integrate processes with third parties, such as freight forwarders, will be vital to support the supply chain swiftly and efficiently. Virtualized electronic workflow mechanisms can maintain the transportation plan for the shipment with unique, product specific milestones like temperature and battery checks. This is then used to drive a process where all the various handlers connected to the shipment during its journey can be integrated via a virtual workflow and all activities are monitored by the system and any deviations trigger automatic alerts.
Real time monitoring based on feeds from multiple channel partners or through devices like sensors that transmit data on a continuous basis will also be key to keeping shipments on track: real time monitoring "control tower" capabilities can keep a "digital eye" on the shipment and flag deviations whilst initiating proactive steps for remedying any off plan scenarios.
Provide access to smaller companies
Ground handling agents are also a critical element of this logistical puzzle, but in some markets, smaller GHAs may have very limited digital offerings, instead favoring paper-based processes for monitoring workflow. This is a problem which must be addressed by extending digitalization to these small GHA's and lowering the bar for them to access the latest digital tools to deliver the superior quality of service which is required for the handling of sensitive goods.
Different levels of maturity
All organizations are at different stages in the digitalization journey. The big pharma companies tend to be leading innovation, and examples such as Pfizer show how it is possible to have highly complex digitalized supply chains and transparency across raw material sourcing. In these scenarios, the role of transport is to seamlessly integrate into the ecosystem. In contrast, when working with businesses that are less advanced, it is vital transport can support the supply chain process by becoming the center of transparency.
The world is counting on air cargo
With several vaccines now in the final stages of testing, the world is counting on the air cargo industry to deliver 7 billion doses worldwide. The task is monumental, but with the correct technology, it will be possible for airlines to rise to the challenge and become the enablers of a new post-pandemic era, which will herald the rise of passenger travel once more, and give the air travel industry a much-needed boost.
Ashok Rajan, Senior Vice President & Head of Cargo and Logistics at IBS Software