MIAMI – The first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines arrived in the US last Friday via a United Airlines (UA) Boeing 777-200 from Brussels to Chicago.

Thus, the vaccines replaced the load of what is a regular Belgium-US passenger service flight. Regarding the airline’s medical cargo operations, the Wall Street Journal reports that UA has been preparing a vaccine task force to set standard operating procedures since the pandemic took the world hostage.

However, the news outlet also reports that the cargo flight came with a major issue. Pfizer’s vaccine requires freezing storage of -94° degrees F. As a result, airlines have to pack this specific type of medical freight with dry ice to keep it below this temperature.

The freezing requirement represent certain difficulties as dry ice is classified as a dangerous good in aviation standards. It is dangerous due to the fact that if dry ice sublimates from a solid to gaseous carbon dioxide during a flight, it could incapacitate the Flight Crew and passengers. 

To help stop this from happening, regulations have established a limited amount of dry ice on board a cargo plane. This can be changed due to unique circumstances such as the current situation we are now in.

In 2017, UA introduced additional Boeing 777-300ER services to operate its Asian routes. Now, it will serve to carry medical supplies from Europe to the US. Photo: Alan Wilson.

FAA’s Concessions Regarding the Vaccine

To make possible the transportion of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines, UA asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a cargo exemption. As a result, the airline received the green light to fly up to 15,000 pounds of dry, according to the WSJ.

The airline still has to comply with other regulations regarding its passenger aircraft like the Boeing 777-200, said UA’s Cargo Americas Managing Director Chris Busch.

A statement from the FAA regarding the unique circumstances and exemptions when it comes to dry ice cargo says it is working with aviation stakeholders to provide guidance on implementing current regulatory requirements. Transporting the vaccines will still face some major logistical challenges, but the establishment of secure protocols amid an unprecedented crisis is good news for the industry, not to mention for the world at large.

Despite Pfizer’s fast pace to start distributing the vaccines that could signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic, it still has to get the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to several media, the authorization of the vaccine would be effective in the coming days.

Featured photo: United Airlines Boeing 777-200ER. Photo: Brandon Farris.