Cross-industry networks accelerating inclusion of the air transport value chain

Encouraging cross-industry collaboration can be difficult with industries that have been traditionally reclusive or independent in nature, but with so much uncertainty about the future, now is the time to reach out beyond usual boundaries and find new sources for innovation, empowerment, and support. Cargoes increasing transit via air hubs is inevitable—they will be demanded to move more faster through the entire air transport value chain—and for shippers to be more comfortable using air freight, the industry needs to give them more visibility, as such collaboration across the whole chain is key.

Upamanyu Borah

The challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted several key truths, one which being the importance of cross-industry collaboration for tackling the biggest issues of our coming future—in the case of air cargo—collaboration efforts should be accelerated to guarantee efficient and safe passage of medical and critical cargo and further bolster pharmaceutical transport segment growth. Granted, some have recognised the necessity for cross-industry collaboration for many years now, but the pandemic led many to have greater appreciation for the “people and enterprises that operate mostly out of public view but are clearly essential to keeping things going”.

With the global air transport industry looking to shake off the disruptions of the past year, now is a good time to further emphasise such collaboration and its potential to help companies stabilise, diversify, and bet on innovation. That said, the air cargo industry is already beginning to see the benefits of community collaboration, all the while players continue to face business uncertainty and how to rejuvenate industry dynamics and returning to pre-pandemic growth still dominates the overall strategy.

The air cargo industry rallied around the common mission of delivering vital medical supplies to defeat the COVID-19 virus. A multi-sector trade association now wants to capitalise on that unity of purpose to drive collaboration on issues important to the sector’s long-term growth and society, such as digitisation and sustainability.

Air cargo players are buckling up to accelerate collaboration efforts—major airlines and airport communities are realising the benefits of joining cross-industry collaboration platform/groups such as Pharma.Aero and Cool Chain Association (CAA) that have worked together to produce new industry guidance regarding safe and secure vaccine transport, closed airspace, restrictive crew requirements, and other trade impediments.

Renewed Response: Studies, Plans, and Measures

Approximately six months since the beginning of the global COVID-19 vaccines distribution exercise, Pharma.Aero conducted a retrospective performance review of the air cargo industry in the initial distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

The review collated insights from Pharma.Aero members on the measures undertaken, the hands-on experience and the lessons learned from the initial handling and transportation of the COVID-19 vaccines, as well as from pharmaceutical shippers on how the air cargo industry has responded to the humanitarian task thus far.

The project aimed to provide additional insights to heighten industry readiness as more COVID-19 vaccines are being manufactured and shipped worldwide, as well as for any new emergencies that may be ahead.

The project revealed that the air cargo industry has performed generally well during the initial global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. From the membership survey and consultation, all member respondents have implemented new initiatives related to speed, reliability, security and transparency to improve on their handling and transportation of COVID-19 vaccine shipments.

Driven by a strong commitment to prepare members and the air cargo industry for a mammoth logistical mission, Pharma.Aero and global air cargo industry representing entity The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), with the support of other international organisations teamed up in August 2020 through Project Sunrays to shine light on COVID-19 vaccine transport requirements and global airfreight readiness—which led to reveal the weak state of air cargo readiness with only 28% of the industry respondents feeling well prepared for their roles—according to their initial September 2020 survey. Both Pharma.Aero and TIACA called for industry-wide action and went on to publish recommended practices in the handling, storage, and transport of COVID-19 vaccines once they are available.

The key to success with the handling and transporting of temperature-sensitive particularly with ultra-cold conditions and time-critical vaccine shipments in the initial phase is founded on collaboration on a local and global level. And based on Project Sunrays’ second global airfreight readiness survey conducted in November 2020, it was apparent that the group of respondents that were most prepared for COVID-19 vaccines distribution were those having the combination of dedicated team + collaboration with vaccine manufacturers + collaboration with their supply chain partners. The survey showed that 46% of air cargo industry stakeholders then felt well-prepared for the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines.

Although the improvement was seen across the whole industry including airlines, freight forwarders, airport operators, and IT solution providers, it was ground handlers who were the least prepared in September, reported the strongest jump in preparedness.

While exclusively speaking to us sometime back when the entire air freight sector was at a turning point from industry orientation to service orientation, Frank van Gelder, Secretary General of Pharma.Aero expressed, “The idea of building a global air freight community platform is when operators and airports recognise themselves in the added value of ‘we as an organisation’. It is when they will associate them with our vision; they will become interested in our membership, and eventually, our projects.”

Additionally, through projects such as ‘Airside Benchmarking Study’ and ‘Airport Corridors’, Pharma.Aero is providing insights to its members on potential gaps and how they could address them and develop the necessary framework to become airports of choice and forge quality air corridors.

“As an industry, if we show that we are able to collaborate and share crucial information where needed, we have the unique opportunity to gain the necessary trust of customers. To have a strong network of sharing and collaborating together has become a must-to-have. The role of pharma shippers is pivotal, especially their request to collaborate as an industry will help us to provide them the necessary operational insights through sharing data and collaboration.”

“For instance, our projects Digi 1.0 and Digi 2.0 are good examples on how we are using cloud data-sharing platforms to create higher supply chain transparency,” van Gelder added.

Interestingly, so far, since the start of the pandemic, more than a dozen members (airlines, airports, ground handlers, LSPs) have joined the Pharma.Aero network to be at the forefront of new and best practices for the storage and handling of sensitive cargo and be part of a globally recognised network.

When we reached out to air cargo industry expert and Director General of TIACA Glyn Hughes to know more how collaboration can help democratise the logistics supply chain access, he noted, “The ramifications of the COVID pandemic on aviation are still impacting the industry, in terms of capacity shortfalls, greatly reduced global connectivity, challenges within the maritime sector and the need for more cargo focussed international regulatory frameworks.”

“We need to have open and dynamic dialogue, identify and establish common understandings and then highlight and focus on areas where common objectives can be agreed. A unified industry will achieve significantly more than each part operating on its own or in silos.”

Hughes said TIACA is focussing much of its efforts on working with governments and international bodies where it can, to try and smooth out some of the obstacles being encountered.

“We continue to establish more partnerships, such as the one with Pharma.Aero which has resulted in some joint publications and we now produce a monthly newsletter titled ‘VacScene’providing critical vaccine related information to the industry.”

“Going forward, we will continue our work with governments and civil aviation authorities to ensure cargo supportive procedures are in place to support the industry through these challenging times.”

TIACA is reported to be working closely with the United Nations-backed COVAX facility, which has a mission to equitably distribute vaccines to poorer regions of the world.

Apart from that, to plug the association’s cash drain, improve the governance structure and make it more relevant to members’ needs, TIACA has revised its membership categories, set up scorecards for evaluating performance, revamped its website and communications vehicles, and created a member portal to enhance connections and the ability to share information.

TIACA’s primary goal will be on delivering content—promote innovation and showcase successful technology implementation—helping members solve big issues, with less focus on lobbying.

Board members will engage more directly with Director General Hughes and take intermediate decisions between board meetings so that TIACA can move faster when necessary.

Ahead of the first batch of approved COVID-19 vaccine global distribution, several air cargo communities had already established joint task forces as a way to strengthen collaboration at local level such as the Brussels Airport’s BRUcure Task Force, Edmonton International Airport’s CEIV Cargo Community Ready Response Task Force, Hong Kong International Airport’s Community Task Force for COVID-19 Vaccines Handling, Miami International Airport’s MIAVAC Task Force, Singapore Changi Airport’s Changi Ready Task Force, Worldwide Flight Services’ Project Coldstream, as well as the Abu Dhabi initiative – the Hope Consortium.

In October 2020, the Cool Chain Association (CCA) and airline industry regulatory body International Air Transport Association (IATA) signed a MoU to support efforts to improve the sustainable transport of perishables and pharmaceuticals.

As partners, the two groups are said to be developing joint programmes including temporary task forces and round tables, for specific initiatives such as the transport of vaccines and life-science products.

The initiative will see representatives of both organisations attending each other’s industry meetings as observers, to present best practice and communicate the results of ongoing projects such as the CCA’s data sharing trials. They will share feedback, experiences, and inclusive knowledge.

A month later, CCA launched a COVID-19 Distribution Change Management Matrix aimed at supporting airports to prepare their logistics for COVID-19 vaccines in a methodical way. The matrix looks at adherence to temperature requirements, packaging, forecast and quantity, and timeframe across different stages in a vaccine’s journey through an airport.

CCA shares the Matrix with members for them to complete and then bring together the information to help the supply chain to focus on potential pinch points, training needs, safety and security, as well as supplier and risk management, and quality. The Matrix also incorporates sections on facilities, and warehouse, and ramp operations.

Overall, the aim of CAA is to provide industry players with a strategic conduit for knowledge exchange and technological ideas, in addition to a tailored platform to expand their current government, industry and supply chain partnerships on a global level.

Although today’s supply chain landscape has meant that priority is supporting players/members/associations with COVID-19 vaccine movement best practices, CAA also remain committed to finding ways of collaborating and ensuring their LAX initiative reaches the goal of improving the temperature supply chain and fight food loss. CAA’s LAX initiative was launched as part of our ongoing goal to find tangible ways to improve the temperature supply chain and fight food loss, as well as making sure pharma consignments safely reach their destinations.

Meanwhile, continuing to strengthen its existence and achieve the shared objectives that it aims for together with the industry, CCA has launched a newly-established Technical Committee and welcomed five new members—Qatar Cargo, 7P Solutions, FreshBizDev, SmartCAE, and AirCargo Consultancy Global. Earlier this year, Etihad Cargo, the cargo and logistics arm of Etihad Aviation Group also announced an extension of its cold chain global business partnerships by joining CAA as well as Pharma.Aero.

The Committee’s aim is to assist, analyse, study, and manage critical points affecting product quality along the cool chain, as well as developing standards, and initiating projects. It will include CCA members who are not Board members and have volunteered to become Project Coordinators, responsible for the facilitation of initiatives and the proposal of final solutions to the Board.

“CCA members work together on projects that will help improve the quality of the cool chain and we have plenty of useful information to share at our conference, especially given the challenges of COVID,” Stavros Evangelakakis, CCA Chairman was quoted saying.

“There has perhaps never been a more pressing time for our community to work together and drive quality in the temperature-sensitive supply chain. The value of collaboration is in sharp focus at the moment and we will be sharing knowledge and information to help support stakeholders from across the cool chain to be more agile and less wasteful.”

“To achieve true transparency and move the industry forward, it is vital that we collaborate and share knowledge with like-minded stakeholders.”

Building and Aligning

The COVID-19 vaccine global distribution demands the air cargo industry deliver these humanitarian shipments in the highest form of speed, reliability, security and transparency. Internationally-recognised standards and certifications such as the IATA Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics (CEIV Pharma), Good Distribution Practice (GDP) and Transported Asset Protection Association (TAPA) are proving to be fundamental standards and frameworks attested by most in the proper handling and transportation of the COVID-19 vaccines and related medical products.

Such industry certifications help standardise the pharma industry, providing a framework for proper and consistent handling of the delicate shipments.

At the same time, organisations that have invested in cold chain infrastructure and capabilities over the years are benefitting from their investments and expect continued returns in the upcoming years.

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