The COVID-19 pandemic, which battered the airlines and narrowed their chances of survival, has also in a unique way, brought in the much-needed ray of hope for the sector.
The airlines which are eagerly waiting to play a key role in the mission of the century are hopeful that the mass vaccine rollout will bring an immediate boost to the sector and will be the ultimate push towards its recovery and survival.
While the development of the vaccine in a short time does brings a sigh of relief, the actual challenge that stands ahead is the rightful distribution of the vaccine across the world.
According to Kate O’Brien who is the vaccines director at the World Health Organization, developing the vaccines in record time was the easy part, or “the equivalent of building base camp at Everest”.
“The delivery of these vaccines, the confidence in communities, the acceptance of vaccines and ensuring that people are in fact immunized with the right number of doses – (this) is what it’s going to take to scale the peak,” she said recently.
While the big challenges await carriers leading the airlift, the gargantuan effort put in by the airlines will help them trim their crisis losses, experts say, while bringing additional benefits to the broader sector, from supporting cargo pricing and revenue to restoring routes.
It is believed that there will be a positive impact either directly through vaccine transportation or the surge in overall cargo demand.
2020 has been already a bright spot for freighters. Many airlines are making unprecedented cargo profits in 2020 even while chalking up record losses overall. In terms of cargo operations, the trend will be sustained at that level in 2021 as a result of the vaccine distribution.
The two major vaccines with an efficiency rate of more than 90% were recently announced by Pfizer and Moderna with a temperature requirement of below -70 C and -20 C respectively. Britain is about to become the first country to begin administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Facilitating the major role of distribution are freight specialists and airlines with large cargo arms – such as Germany’s Lufthansa, Air France-KLM and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific – often under contract for forwarders and integrators like UPS, Fedex and DHL.
Gulf carriers Qatar Airways and Emirates as well as Turkish Airlines, all slammed by the long-haul travel collapse, can leverage their vast connecting hubs. Turkish has begun flying China’s Sinovac vaccine to Brazil and, like many peers, is increasing its cold chain capacity and storage.
Disruption risk in the distribution of vaccine foreseen
While the airlines are gearing up for the successful distribution of the vaccine, it is anticipated that the vaccine distribution might be compromised due to the travel curbs or quarantine restrictions.
IATA warns that vaccine rollout could be “compromised” without an easing of the travel curbs and quarantines it has lobbied against.
“There are parts of the world that have no cargo operations since the passenger networks were grounded,” IATA head of cargo Glyn Hughes said
However, it is believed that lessons have been learned. UNICEF, whose polio and other immunization campaigns were initially hit by lockdowns, believes now people are focused on resisting cargo price hikes, as it sources Covid-19 vaccines for 92 poorer countries.
The UN children’s agency is also helping airlines to plan capacity and keep rates down, said transport chief Pablo Panadero, who still sees prices as high as twice pre-crisis levels.
It is believed that cargo carriers may face reputational risk if they use the full clout of their current pricing power.
While it is a chance for carriers to make up for their losses, it is also important for them to understand and be aware of the humanitarian and even societal importance of the distribution of the vaccine.