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.