LONDON – United Airlines (UA) has announced over the weekend it has begun distributing Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines through the use of charter flights.

The charter flights have been operated on the basis of enabling quick distribution around the US and the world if the vaccine is subsequently approved by global medical authorities.

UA will operate flights between Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Brussels International Airport (BRU) due to the Pfizer assembly centers being in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Puurs, Belgium.

Photo: Nick Sheeder

FAA Approving Vaccine-Based Flights

In a statement released yesterday by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), support for the “first mass air shipment of a vaccine” was being made by the institution.

United had a request approved by the FAA which would see the airline carry more dry ice on board than is usually permitted on a flight, with the figure being 15,000 pounds, around five times the standard limit.

The FAA normally restricts the level of dry ice being taken onboard as a way of mitigating any exposure of leaked carbon dioxide on board the flights. Of course, these services will remain on standby until the FDA approves the vaccine for official use on the general population.

Photo: Brandon Farris

Other Carriers Following Suit

Carriers around the world have been preparing for a similar scenario to that of UA, with the likes of FedEx (FX) and DHL International implementing temperature-monitoring systems to track vaccine shipments.

UPS (5X) and Lufthansa Cargo (LH) are building “freezer farms” which combine refrigeration units at their hubs around the world to store vaccines during the transit process. This is considerably positive news as it means that the industry is getting close to the final steps before the vaccine can eventually be distributed around the world.

Such distribution frameworks being established do not come as a surprise, especially with other pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca and others developing their own strains of the vaccines that will no doubt be approved also.

Photo: Luca Flores

What’s the Timeline?

According to Pfizer, it has requested emergency authorization for use of the COVID-19 vaccine and is awaiting for the FDA to meet on December 10. From there, the FDA will discuss the options with outside advisers to review all of the evidence supplied by Pfizer about the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Once the institution is satisfied that the vaccine meets all safety criteria, then the green-light will be given to airlines to distribute it all around the world. Once such approval takes place, around 20 million Americans are expected to be vaccinated by the end of the year.

Photo: Luca Flores

Positive Boost to Aviation

The news is not only positive for the global population but it is also good news for the aviation industry, as it will now enable another form of revenue stream. With it being in the short-term, such a stream will be useful to create a neutral and stable financial environment for airlines to thrive on over the next 12 months.

Government forecasts of vaccine distribution to the population mean that not everyone will be fully vaccinated until the end of 2021, meaning that such a supply chain will remain in place parallel to the time when recovery can take place.

For now, it seems that UA and other airlines engaged in this process will lead the way to ensuring that COVID-19 can now begin to fade away as a pandemic and into something just considered as a normal virus.

Featured Image: United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Photo Credit: Luca Flores.