The vaccine news airlines have been waiting for arrived this week, raising hopes for a recovery in passenger air travel — but only if the crippled industry can muster the resources to deliver billions of life-saving doses to the world.
Why it matters: A vaccine could restore the public's trust in flying — if it's widely available — and airlines themselves will play a crucial role in what UNICEF calls the world’s largest and fastest vaccine distribution effort in history.
Catch up fast: On Monday, drug makers Pfizer and BioNTech announced early results of a clinical trial suggesting their coronavirus vaccine was 90% effective in preventing COVID-19.
- Even if this or other vaccines are approved, it will take months to manufacture and distribute the doses.
The challenge is enormous: Just providing a single dose to the world's 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747 freighter planes, says the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
- If half the needed vaccines are transported by land, it would still be the biggest single challenge the air cargo industry has ever faced, says IATA.
The problem: Most cargo flies in the belly-holds of passenger aircraft — not on cargo planes — and one in four airplanes have been grounded during the pandemic because people aren't flying.
- The majority of those parked planes are wide-body jets typically flown on international routes — precisely the ones needed to distribute vaccines.
An added complication: The Pfizer-BNT vaccine (and similar ones) would require ultra-cold temperatures throughout the supply chain.
- Few airlines are equipped to maintain shipments below -25°C, reports Skift, a travel industry publication. Germany's Lufthansa is an exception, with cold-chain capacity in 35 markets.
- Others, including Korean Air and United Airlines, are scrambling to prepare now.
- "Things can only begin to return to normal when a vaccine is widely available around the world. We’ll be ready to do our part," United CEO Scott Kirby posted on Instagram this week.
Yes, but: The industry is hardly in top shape to pull off such a massive undertaking.
- The pandemic crushed global air travel, with passenger traffic down 65% from a year ago.
- U.S.-based airlines have piled up $36 billion in pre-tax losses through September — and they're still losing money at the rate of $180 million per day, according to Airlines for America.
- 55,000 jobs have been lost so far, with an expected 90,000 job losses by the end of the year.
What's needed: Airlines will need government help, industry officials say.
- The industry is urging Congress to renew the payroll support program for airline employees that expired Oct. 1 so they'll be prepared to jump into action when a vaccine is ready.
The bottom line: "If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised," said IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac.