Air cargo players gain an edge in pharma logistics

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As pharmaceutical manufacturers develop more specialised and personalised drugs, the air cargo industry and their logistics partners are right behind them with prescriptions to ensure that the health of those critical shipments are maintained. Right from developing specialised products for pharmaceutical transportation to getting origin to destination certified pharma lanes so that cargo moves under a certified service from handover by the shipper to delivery to the consignee, standardisation has come a long way.

Surya Kannoth

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced separate regulations for healthcare logistics, commonly referred to as Chapter 17 of the IATA Perishable Cargo Regulations, after one its authors stated, “Bananas and Botox, although both perishable, have vastly different handling requirements; just as the results of mishandling of either, or both, have vastly different consequences.”

Since then, many airlines have responded to shippers’ needs and in a bid to cater to specialized cargo requirements, air cargo players across the globe are upping the ante on improving their capabilities in pharmaceutical transportation.

For instance, Qatar Airways Cargo has been making continuous investments in product development since the launch of QR Pharma in January 2014. The cargo carrier is also nearing completion of its state-of-the-art ‘Climate Control Centre’ at Hamad International Airport. This transit facility for pharmaceuticals, situated on the airside, is commissioned to be ready in early 2017.

In September 2016, Emirates SkyCargo built a new facility dedicated exclusively to the timely and secure transport of temperature sensitive pharmaceutical shipments at Dubai International Airport (DXB).

Furthermore, the carrier launched White Cover Advanced, a next generation version of its innovative protection product for valuable temperature sensitive cargo. White Cover Advanced utilises a patented material from DuPont to form a tough protective barrier against varying external temperatures and direct sunlight.

Emirates SkyCargo’s product development team also invented a new temperature controlled container which has been named “White Container”. It is coated on the inside with thermal Insulators to counteract high temperatures in Dubai and help preserve temperature-sensitive cargo, including fruits and vegetables as well as pharmaceuticals.

Turkish Cargo is also redefining its SOPs for pharmaceutical transportation. “We have inaugurated a new 3,000 m² special cargo storage area and now 39 separate special cargo rooms. We built local pharma handling expertise and a pharma mindset training the employees on pharmaceutical handling. We have signed agreements with active temperature controlled container providers Envirotainer. Furthermore, with all this improvements we are planning to launch the new product(s) for pharmaceuticals shipments in 2017,” informs Seref Karanci, senior vice president, Turkish Cargo.

Cargolux has invested significant effort into the advancement and development of its CV Pharma product. The airline has performed an in-depth aircraft thermal analysis, developed aircargo covers with Dupont and, in early 2014, became the first airline worldwide to be GDP certified. “While we have put a lot of emphasis on passive solutions, we have felt that we needed to step up our game and also offer active solutions. We are now enjoying a very good cooperation with all three active providers and have set up a team to centrally control the movements,” Stavros Evangelakakis, Manager Global Products Management, Cargolux highlights.

“Today, our customers are tracking temperatures, meaning they know, by the minute, if anything deviates from the original plan. This obviously implies that we exactly know our processes, the ‘can dos’ and ‘can’t dos’. The massive data collection we continuously undergo, helps us to transparently and collaboratively interpret the operational capability,” he adds.

In the last year alone, American Airlines Cargo completely upgraded its infrastructure in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a large, global pharmaceutical manufacturing base. These enhanced facilities include all new Controlled Room Temperature (CRT, +15°C to +25°C) and Refrigerated (COL, +2°C to +8°C) rooms, as well as expanded Active Container Management (ACM) for recharging containers.

“Recently, we also implemented a new internal tool that automatically sends proactive updates to customers on the status of their shipments. The tool is updated at each monitoring step during the handling process and, in addition to each new proactive reading, the complete status history of the shipment is also provided at each check,” reveals Tom Grubb, manager-cold chain strategy, American Airlines Cargo.

The cargo carrier continues to evaluate and update its ExpediteTC° service offering based upon customer input regarding the needs for their products.

“We are also planning to continue our investments into our infrastructure. Our TF2 facility, which offers 1,400 pallet positions, two temperature environments and is fully automated, was inaugurated in 2015 and represents a $7 million investment. Going forward, we are planning to expand cold storage capacity in 2017/18, adding areas for customs inspections in a temperature controlled environment, a dedicated facility for frozen goods und further temperature controlled docks. We are also planning to invest in cool dollies to close a gap in the cold chain,” adds Grubb.

Certified door-to-door trade lanes for pharma in focus
“It is beneficial for everyone involved in the logistics of niche products to engage in dialogue with clients and suppliers alike, to define and agree mutual expectations in order to minimise risks and enhance combined service delivery. This is best achieved through tripartite relationships and partnerships that offer more transparency and mutual cooperation to deliver a product ‘fit for purpose’ to the final consumer,” expresses Ulrich Ogiermann, Chief Officer Cargo at Qatar Airways Cargo.

Much has been achieved in terms of standardisation since then and the IATA Time and Temperature task force have made some radical changes, however, industry players feel more needs to be done to provide clarity at a global level for all responsible parties to follow the same guidelines.

And as the competition for temperature-controlled pharmaceutical air cargo intensifies, initiatives to entice shippers with certified door-to-door trade lanes is taking centre stage.


In October 2016 during the TIACA Air Cargo Forum in Paris, Brussels Airport in association with Miami International Airport launched a global collaboration group, which aims to achieve reliable end-to-end air transport for pharmaceutical cargo, called Pharma.Aero. “We are convinced that we can only take a next step through collaboration between airports committed to offer world class pharma handling, with the active involvement of the pharma shippers and all other air cargo operators,” said Nathan de Valck, cargo and product development manager, Brussels Airport Company. De Valck is also the chairman of the Pharma.Aero initiative.

Other members who have joined the initiative include Changi Airport, Sharjah Airport, Brussels Airlines, Singapore Airlines Cargo, Brinks Life Sciences, and most recently, Johnson & Johnson.

“As the membership grows, Pharma.Aero will organise more local workshops, exchange best practices and deliver a positive change for the industry in its project groups,” shares de Valck.

Speaking about their association with Brussels Airport on the Pharma.Aero initiative, Jimmy Nares, section chief marketing division, Miami International Airport says, “We started with our local cargo community approach and support of the CEIV Certification Program. With our designation from IATA we more aggressively began to market ourselves as an Airport Pharma Hub, and we have also been promoting our eight tenants who are going through the CEIV Program. We also began to organise and will continue to organise local pharma seminars and fora. The next step for us was to form alliances with other pharma stakeholders around the world. Brussels Airport was the logical choice and we decided together to form Pharma.Aero. This is where we expect future growth for to come from as we work with pharma shippers and other airports around the world to establish viable pharma trade lanes.”

As GDP remains the baseline for all programmes, the much-acclaimed and widely-accepted IATA CEIV certification also revolves around the GDP guidelines. While GDP certification faces the challenge of meeting varying standards and guidelines from country to country, the universal standard of IATA CEIV makes manufacturers less reliant on their own audits, reduces the number of audits necessary overall, reduces cost, and increases speed of product to market. IATA’s CEIV Pharma has been a concerted effort to improve the level of competency, operational and technical preparedness among the air cargo players.

“As an airport with major international cargo operations, the CEIV program provides the most marketing value for us internationally. This is why we embraced CEIV and incorporated it into our strategy for helping our local cargo community to grow its capacity for properly handling pharma products,” shares Nares.

Agrees Riogaleo Airport’s Patrick Fehring, “The certification is exclusive to the air cargo industry, designed with the involvement of the industry. As such it reflects our reality and speaks to the needs of our customers. The community approach and the idea of certifying trade lanes were particularly appealing to us as was the program’s marketability – there are many GDPs but only one CEIV Pharma and it is gathering momentum.”

Echoing similar views on GDP certification, Lim Ching Kiat, managing director - air hub development, Changi Airport Group, said, “GDP certification is administered locally/regionally by each country/region’s healthcare industry, and addresses various modes of transport – air, land and sea. However, the GDP has its limitations; there is a lack of uniform global standards when it comes to the handling, storage and transportation of pharmaceuticals.”

The IATA CEIV helps to interpret these requirements and translate them operationally at each stage of the value chain such that each player downstream can meet these requirements. The CEIV is also in compliance with some of the major standards such as the World Health Organization’s Annex 5 and the EU GDP, Kiat adds.
“Being CEIV certified underscores the attention and quality that we strive for every day. Having CEIV certification provides another proof point that we are moving in the right direction. With that being said, I do believe that having a quality product and the network to support it will ultimately create more demand. And increasing demand for pharma services is one of the reasons for our ongoing evaluation and expansion of our program, which includes the ability to enhance services with the features most desired by our customers,” said Tom Grubb. American is currently in the process of obtaining CEIV certification right now. Late last year, the carrier announced the successful contract execution with IATA and American Airlines, which enabled it to pursue CEIV certification.

Still rooting for GDP certification
Despite the growing popularity of IATA CEIV certification, which is largely based on GDP guidelines, there are still a number of players who vouch to remain GDP compliant/certified.

“GDP is a well-known standard for all pharma companies, making it far more serviceable and practical for us to discuss logistical and regulatory requirements, as well as the various limitations that can affect a particular airfreight shipment. Being GDP certified eases the facilitation of the many audits, knowing what the real requirements are. Cargolux was one of the first carriers to translate the GDP requirements into air cargo language from the booking of a time and temperature pharma shipment through to acceptance until final delivery to the customer,” elaborates Cargolux’s Evangelakakis.

Stavros further stated that what the pharma certification program is called is “irrelevant”, as long as you fulfill the GDP needs of medicinal products for human use, whether it is the handling, transportation by air and/or by truck or temporary storage. “Increasing supply chain quality and meeting shippers’ expectations requires even more industry collaboration, standardization and product visibility – if we want to drastically increase pharma certified tracks in the global air cargo network,” he adds.

In agreement, Julian Sutch, manager cargo global sales - pharma industry solutions at Emirates SkyCargo said, “We held extensive consultations with our global customers to understand their preference on the various certifications available for pharma prior to our decision on getting GDP certification. We have many audits carried out by our customers and they audit us against the GDP guidelines. What the GDP certification offers our customers is validation and proof that our service levels meet the highest regulations for safe transportation of pharmaceutical goods.”

Sutch further informed that it is developing origin to destination Pharma GDP lanes, so the cargo will move under a certified service from handover by the shipper to delivery to the consignee. “Our IT department is also working on developing a web based application which will help customers find out about the global pharma capability in our network. The app would also make it easy for them to make a quick decision. We are constantly developing the ramp temperature protection not only in Dubai but also in key stations,” he added.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways Cargo, which is currently GDP compliant, is considering various options and future strategic plans for certification and product development. “Our procedures are designed in accordance with the highest Pharmaceutical Industry Standards, compliant with GDP. Qatar Airways Cargo engages in regular external audits by shippers and forwarders to maintain the highest standards of compliance and service quality,” said Ogiermann.

Making giant strides, the air cargo industry has been doing all it takes to upgrade its services to woo the demanding, highly-regulated and lofty expectations of the pharmaceutical market. It needs to be seen how these dedicated pharma trade lanes gain ground to help create a common global standard for pharmaceutical transportation.

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