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A COVID-19 vaccine could be a lifeline to airlines, but a headache to transport

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.

"We've always said that airlines are critical infrastructure. Well, we just got more critical. You can't have a successful vaccine unless you can get it to the people who need it."
Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America

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.

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