Delta prepares for COVID-19 vaccine shipments

Delta Air Lines says it is equipped to distribute temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccines as it pushes to secure part of the business that will come from the massive shipping effort.

Atlanta-based Delta has a 40,000-square-foot cold chain facility at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which is certified to handle temperature- and time-sensitive pharmaceuticals.

Capacity at that facility was, fortuitously, increased last year, according to Rob Walpole, Delta’s new vice president of cargo operations. The airline also has electrical infrastructure to power cold containers at Hartsfield-Jackson, its largest hub.

The federal government has dedicated billions of dollars in funding to the manufacturing and distribution of vaccines. Walpole said he believes “there’s more than enough [business] to go around for the carriers.”

“We are planning to commence distribution of vaccines as they become available, in the back half of December and certainly into the first quarter next year,” he said during a briefing Thursday.

Delta also has cooler facilities at other hubs and locations around the world that can handle pharmaceutical shipments.

While the airline doesn’t operate a fleet of cargo freighters, it can use belly cargo space on its passenger flights and operates cargo-only charter flights.

The airline handled vaccine trial shipments on international and domestic flights “with zero issues,” Walpole said, and has set up a “vaccine control tower” operation.

Other carriers have gotten an early start in the market. United Airlines handled the first mass air shipment of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines last week, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Sandy Springs-based UPS also expects to play a major role in shipping vaccines and has expanded freezer farms at its facilities.

Delta is still in discussions with vaccine manufacturers, Walpole said. Airlines could be paid for vaccine shipments by freight forwarders or by the manufacturers themselves, he said, adding that any final agreements with manufacturers would be struck as vaccines become available.

Federal officials said distribution of vaccines can begin within 24 hours of approval by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’s vaccine advisory committee is scheduled to review the Pfizer vaccine Dec. 10 and the Moderna vaccine Dec. 17.

Vaccine distribution could come at one of the busiest times for the shipping industry and airlines — the holiday season.

Walpole said planning for vaccine distribution “is heavily underway” and he believes the risk of disruptions is low.

Delta parked hundreds of planes earlier this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. But, “for sure we can return some of the fleet that we have grounded right now,” for vaccine distribution, Walpole said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is working with airlines, airports and manufacturers on one of the biggest challenges: safely transporting large amounts of dry ice to keep vaccines cold. Dry ice is regulated on aircraft because of the hazards to crews and passengers from the emission of carbon dioxide gas.

Special approvals to transport vaccines on its largest aircraft would mean Delta could fly with twice as much as normally allowed and up to six times more when carrying the Pfizer vaccine, Walpole said.

Vaccines must be kept cold when they are unloaded from the plane and throughout handling. “That’s been a challenge for everyone,” Walpole said.