- Lufthansa Cargo recently upgraded its Chicago O’Hare facility to be able to handle a large amount of pharmaceutical shipments.
- The various Covid-19 vaccines all have special cold storage requirements, which Lufthansa Cargo is equipped to handle.
- The cargo industry has already been overwhelmed this year by how many people shopping from home, leading to shipping surges and late packages.
- There will likely be a fight for space between vaccines, Amazon packages, furniture, cars, and other cargo.
- We went inside to see how the team is getting ready to ship up to 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses a day.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcipt of the video.
Narrator: Cargo planes like this MD-11 will soon be transporting the most anticipated vaccine of the 21st century. Prior to the coronavirus, Lufthansa Cargo invested $5 million to upgrade its facility at Chicago O’Hare International Airport to handle a lot more pharmaceutical cargo — 200 tons a day, to be exact. So when pharma companies began to develop the coronavirus vaccine, Lufthansa was in a fortuitous position. Vaccine manufacturers reached out to the company, which has just 19 planes in its cargo fleet, to help distribute millions of vaccines in record time.
It’s a product everyone on Earth needs as quickly as possible, but distributing the various vaccines to the entire world is going to be a massive undertaking. It will require solving huge logistical challenges. The different vaccines need to be kept at various cold temperatures, transported to isolated and hard-to-reach areas, and fit on different-sized planes.
David Zimmer: Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen with the vaccine. There was an estimation that we probably need approximately 8,000 freighter flights to globally distribute this vaccine. We don’t have that many aircraft.
Narrator: Prior to the pandemic, 50% of all cargo shipments were transported on passenger aircraft in the same luggage hold as our suitcases. But that all changed in March.
Zimmer: Boom. Now you have no passenger aircraft. So now everything’s going on the freighters.
Narrator: That’s David. He and his team took us behind the scenes at Lufthansa’s cargo facility to see how it’s preparing to move vaccines through this nearly 110,000-square-foot terminal that runs around the clock. It’s all done by a crew of over 200 highly qualified personnel, who can load two freighter planes full of 112 tons of cargo every day.
Zimmer: Through the facility, we can probably transport anywhere from 2 to 10 million vaccines every day. We do expect that once the vaccine is ready, that a lot of it will come through this facility.
Narrator: Not many cargo facilities have the massive cooling infrastructure required to handle large shipments of COVID vaccines.
Benno Forster: If you have a vaccine or something which got too high of a temperature or too cold of a temperature, it might not be good for the patient anymore.
Narrator: Benno works for DB Schenker, a logistics company that specializes in transporting pharmaceuticals with strict temperature controls, and is partnering with Lufthansa to ship the vaccines.
Forster: In the pharma industry, as you can see all over the place, it says 2 to 8 degrees. That’s the typical way you ship pharma. So the biggest challenge is to keep that product at this defined temperature from the moment we pick it up to the moment we deliver it.
Narrator: But Lufthansa Cargo is equipped to take on the challenge.
Zimmer: Before COVID happened, we made a huge investment here, and it’s really, it’s old-school stuff. Giant freezers and fridges that are connected and monitored. We have all these airlines asking us, “Can we use your warehouse?” Because we happen to have the infrastructure ready for COVID.
Narrator: Lufthansa’s $5 million investment resulted in two new rooms. The first one, called PPH, is for items to be stored at 15 to 25 degrees Celsius.
Amra Bukva: We are here in the PPH room, pharma room, which stands for perishable passive high temperature, 15 to 25. This is the place where we store the shipments coming in from all over the world, until delivered.
Narrator: The PPH room can store all sorts of things, like flowers, stem cells, and live fish. Its 15-to-25 temperature range is designed so nothing gets too hot or too cold. But that’s not the only specialized room Lufthansa has.
Bukva: Welcome to our freezer room, which is setting minus 18 Celsius degrees. It’s suitable for the frozen goods, so usually we have smaller packages, like this one.
Narrator: Small to medium boxes, like those, can be packed with your regular old ice packs or dry ice to keep the products inside fresh or cool. But with dry ice, there are restrictions on how much of it you can load onto a plane.
Forster: You’re very limited on a passenger plane, because the dry ice will take the oxygen out of the air. So if we have too much dry ice here and we are standing all around here after a certain time, we will not be able to breathe.
Narrator: For pharmaceuticals that require even cooler temperatures, pharma and cargo companies use nitroglycerin, which could be especially vital for Pfizer’s vaccine, since it will need to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, or minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bukva: Nobody can set minus 94. So those are canisters filled up with nitroglycerin, and the vaccine is put inside.
Narrator: The vaccines you’ve heard about all have different temperature needs. While Pfizer’s needs to be stored at those subarctic temperatures, Moderna’s vaccine needs to be frozen at negative 20 degrees Celsius if it spends more than 30 days in refrigerated storage. AstraZeneca’s can be stored at the same temperature as a home fridge for up to six months.
Forster: The big challenge will be the minus 70, minus 80 Celsius. Airlines and freight forwarders have to invest in mobile coolers, because you will not build a cooler like this for minus 70 degrees. Because if you think about it, you need PPE material to go into it. I couldn’t go like this into minus 70 degrees.
Narrator: The good thing is Pfizer has already created its own container that uses dry ice to keep its vaccine cool for at least 10 days. Other vaccines that don’t require such low temperatures, like Moderna’s, can use already-existing solutions, like these Envirotainers.
Stephen Lindsay: The battery charge on here is 100%. The set temperature on this is minus 20.
Narrator: These Envirotainers, specially designed for transporting pharmaceuticals, can keep everything inside at temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. They even have their own power supply, enabling them to operate without being plugged in for 10 to 15 hours, which allows them to withstand long flights.
Lindsay: There’s cords here that plug right into the outlet center in the containers there. When we have these containers here, they still need to be maintained as far as their temperature is concerned, because they run on a charge. They won’t stay long in the facility, but they have a home to sit into until it’s time for them to go.
Narrator: But in the event of flight cancellations, delays, or shipments to remote locations, battery-operated containers can pose a risk.
Bukva: You cannot have nothing except airplane engines running inside. They don’t want your phone on. So can you imagine how it would be if you have 10, 15 containers plugged in? That’s impossible.
Narrator: The Lufthansa facility does have one more way of keeping things cold.
Ricardo Lopez: This is where all the ULDs, or the pallets that come off the aircraft, they get stored in here.
Zimmer: This is my favorite part of the warehouse. I call it Bumblebee. As you can see, it is a little bit like a vending machine. Basically a giant storage system.
Narrator: Using this 30-year-old giant-vending-machine-like device, Lufthansa is able to store pallets in three levels of stacked rooms with garage-door-like openings. 18 of the rooms are temperature controlled, and each can store two full pallets of pharmaceuticals.
Zimmer: The only thing that’s been in this warehouse longer than this machine is this machine right here. [laughter]
Lindsay: Still running, running strong, no problem.
Narrator: When it’s time to retrieve a shipment, an operator will have Bumblebee go right to the appropriate door, retrieve the pallet, and load it onto a transporter that will take it directly to the plane. Some of the pharma cargo may find its way onto pallets like this. Specially trained operations managers put these together based on weight and volume distribution, all while trying to maximize the space available on the plane.
Lindsay: The more we maximize, the more extra we can take on the flight there.
Zimmer: It’s really just, it’s a game. So good builders are Tetris players. They have very good spatial vision.
Narrator: If a pallet like this is going on the MD-11, the plane we saw on our visit, it can’t just be cube-shaped.
Zimmer: The contour is built to the shape of the aircraft. So this is a main-deck position. We want to maximize space, so that’s why you see that curvature here.
Lopez: Cargo that’s loaded in there cannot go outside those boundaries, because otherwise it’ll damage the aircraft. And there’s a distance of two inches that it’s got to be away from that wall in order to keep it in a safely controlled distance.
Narrator: Yep, every pallet has to be built around where it will be on the plane and what shape the interior takes at that position. While the front offers more height, the tail does not.
Lopez: All right, let’s take you up to the MD-11. We’re going up to the cockpit right now.
Husmira: Please watch your steps. Walk carefully, as this space is tight between the pallets.
Lopez: So, as you can see up here on the aircraft, it’s pretty much a skeleton. And it’s very thin walls that you have out here. It’s just like a cardboard. And that’s all that’s protecting the aircraft. So you don’t want weight, because as soon as you put more weight on an aircraft, you lose cargo.
Pharma is going to be transported on our ULDs. These locks are what holds the pallet from moving back and forward and also upward positions. The only difference between cargo and pharma is you have your temperature restrictions. You would just notify the crew and tell them to put the whole main deck at that temperature, or the lowered holds, which will be the forward hold in front of the aircraft downstairs, he can set that temperature as well.
Narrator: Ops agents like Ricky have to get everything right within the confines of the plane, weight limitations, and weather conditions.
Lopez: These white plastic — as you can see, it’s different from this other one. This is just clear plastic. This is regular cargo, and these are temperature-controlled ULDs. And we put this white plastic here as a protective covering. So it can reflect the sun or anything. That’ll keep it to the temperature that it’s needed while it waits outside.
Zimmer: When it’s heavy rain, snow, sleet, all that stuff accumulates on the cargo. When you move that into the aircraft, that drips into the avionics compartment. It can happen on an aircraft that the avionics compartment just goes blank. The entire aircraft is dark. That is a huge risk. So when that happens, our ops team, they have to basically make sure there’s no water anywhere. That aircraft sits there until the next day, until everything’s dry, until everything’s inspected and it can fly.
Narrator: And all this has to happen within a very limited time frame.
Lopez: We have a ground time of two hours and a half to offload the aircraft and load it. That’s as much time that they give us. That’s for a full turnaround.
Narrator: If cargo is not loaded perfectly, then shipments could be delayed, someone could get hurt, or pharmaceuticals on the aircraft could be deemed unusable.
Zimmer: If the aircraft is delayed until 7 in the morning, you got to stay until 7 in the morning.
Lopez: We, as operations, we’re the final check that we have to prevent anything from happening.
Narrator: While Lufthansa has nine 777s that can carry 103,000 kilograms, its other cargo aircraft, the MD-11 seen here, can carry only 90% of that, or about 93,000 kilograms. And it was never meant to carry cargo in the first place.
Zimmer: The MD-11 was originally built as a passenger aircraft. We converted ours to freighters. We have three MD-11s left in our fleet. We were supposed to no longer have them. They’re old aircraft. They’re very nice, very beautiful, but very old aircraft. They’re also very difficult to manage from an operational point of view.
Lopez: They should have been phased out already by the end of the year, but they’re keeping them a little longer because of the demand that we have. The main difference from this, the 777 and this, this aircraft has three engines, and it’s got one in the back, and that’s one of our critical points. This aircraft is so tail-heavy that we have to have extra precaution on not tipping it, because if you have too much weight in the back this aircraft will go up, and those wheels will come down.
Zimmer: The MD-11 is like playing Tetris. If the four of us standing here on an empty aircraft walk to the back of the aircraft, that airplane tilts, and you can no longer fly that aircraft. That’s an AOG, aircraft on ground.
Narrator: While the crew has to worry about the MD-11 popping a wheelie, the process is much easier with Lufthansa’s 777s.
Lopez: A 777 only has two engines, and they’re located in the middle. So it’s very hard for it to tip. So safety related, the 777’s a lot better, fuel efficient than the MD-11.
Zimmer: A 777 aircraft, which is the largest aircraft we have that is a freighter aircraft, commercial freighter aircraft, holds approximately 100 tons. So in this facility we could run two full freighter aircraft every day, coming in with pharmaceuticals and delivering them.
Narrator: And while the Lufthansa facility is ready to handle 224 tons on two 777s a day, that still might not be enough planes.
Zimmer: There was an estimation that we’d probably need approximately 8,000 freighter flights.
Narrator: That’s 8,000 freighters carrying only the vaccine. But remember, these flights also normally get loaded with shipments like furniture, pets, cars, and all sorts of other cargo. And this is all happening as we enter a holiday season in a year that has already put massive strain on the air-cargo industry.
Zimmer: It is going to be a huge congestion. My understanding is there’s going to be a huge competition for space. So if Amazon pays more than the United States government for the space on the aircraft, then, you know, they’re selling it to Amazon.
Narrator: But passengers are flying less because of COVID-19. So why not just load up all those passenger planes with vaccines?
Zimmer: You can’t really convert an aircraft like that. I can’t go, boom, now it’s a freighter aircraft. The biggest problem with that is the door. So, you can’t, you look around here. You can’t fit that through a passenger door.
Narrator: The increase in cargo shipments has presented its own challenges for Lufthansa.
Zimmer: Suddenly everybody needs qualified people who can work on freighters. Everybody here at the airport is trying to poach our people. Our biggest challenge in the middle of this pandemic is suddenly all the other competitors want our people, and we have limited resources to train new staff. So you really, your Steves that has been here for 42 years and your Husmiras and all these people that are qualified and know what they’re doing, they’re all being approached by everybody else, ’cause everybody needs them for COVID and for freight.
Narrator: At the same time, Lufthansa Cargo had to implement social distancing, mandatory masks, and temperature checks in its facility.
Zimmer: We’re an essential business, obviously. I always say, you know, try moving freight on a Zoom call. It doesn’t really work, right? So we have to make sure that our people stay healthy.
Narrator: Distance, travel times, and the urgency of the vaccine will add even more complexity to this already-complicated process.
Zimmer: You need a lot of space, but only for a few days, and then you don’t need it anymore.
Forster: Especially when you go to Africa. When you go to remote areas, it might take more than 10 hours to be there.
Narrator: And while that’s a large-scale problem to solve, there are some micro issues that need to be addressed closer to home.
Zimmer: We’re getting electrical forklifts to handle the pharmaceuticals. If you’re in the room with the pharmaceuticals, you don’t want to be using a propane forklift for too long, because it can be a contaminant.
Lindsay: These are all the adjustments that we have to make in order to make everything work. And a lot of things we’re learning as we’re going.
Bukva: We will definitely do everything possible to accommodate, because this is huge.
Forster: If you do pharma or vaccine, you know that there is a patient behind. So that automatically gives you a sense of, you know, even more responsibility to make sure that, not to say that the other freight is not important, but, you know, this is something which we obviously have to be monitoring any minute, because if it goes bad, it can cost the life of a human being.
Bukva: It gives you a big sense of responsibility. We putting Band-Aid on the world.