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Just the tonic

Healthcare shipments are subject to numerous and sometimes conflicting regulations. But better relations between carriers, forwarders and shippers, plus increased investment, is helping airlines to fight off cheaper and more secure competition from seafreight, discovers Martin Roebuck

American Airlines Cargo is soon to open a pharmaceutical and healthcare handling facility at its hub in Philadelphia. The opening of the multi-temperature facility will coincide with the rollout of the ExpediteTC cold chain product across AA’s extended network, following its merger with US Airways which had never developed a formal temperature-controlled offering.


More than 4,600 employees and ground handlers worldwide went through extensive training in active and passive temperature control procedures during the carriers’ integration process, explains Tom Grubb, AA’s manager of cold chain strategy.


A priority was to make personnel aware of differing pharma distribution standards in the US over the originating and destination markets such as Europe and Latin America.


The EU’s recently amended Good Distribution Practice (GDP) quality assurance guidelines are only one template. “The US FDA [Food and Drug Administration], the UK Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and others can have different perspectives,” Grubb says. “Even individual countries’ customs authorities can get involved. Requirements can conflict; there are inconsistencies.”


Some 35 sets of regulations worldwide govern the transportation of temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals, according to Jörg Bodenröder, director of Lufthansa Cargo’s Temperature Control competence centre. He says that IATA, through its Time and Temperature Task Force (TTTF) – which brings airlines together with pharma manufacturers, packaging suppliers, IT providers and freight forwarders – is trying to bring these into a coherent package that the whole supply chain can understand.


Grubb, who sits on the TTTF, says that: “Temperatures must be maintained throughout the entire transportation process, including the points in the cycle where products are more vulnerable – for example on the ramp during aircraft loading and perhaps during trucking to the final destination.


“The key for air carriers is to minimise time on the ramp so that the temperature-sensitive cargo is the last loaded, thus spending the least time at the side of the plane.”


AA aims to ensure pharma shipments are exposed for a maximum of 90 minutes. “That’s quite short when you consider the distance from the warehouse to the aircraft at some airports,” says Grubb. “A combination of robust processes and effective passive packaging enables successful product protection in these environments.”


Historically, the pharma industry has relied 80% on passive and 20% on active temperature control solutions, he estimates. The last few years have seen increased focus on passive solutions in the 2-8°C category, mainly due to changing regulations. However, outside the regulatory environment, customers are also more closely scrutinising carriers’ processes, infrastructure and training.


This has led to a trilateral approach, Grubb says. “Traditionally, airlines rarely got to speak with the shipper. That’s OK if you’re moving ballbearings, but it’s different where temperature-sensitive cargo is concerned.


“It depends on the working relationship between the forwarder and the carrier, but it’s becoming more widely accepted. When manufacturer, forwarder and carrier all get in the same room, we can discuss solutions and set up the SOP [standard operating procedure] together. Otherwise there can be a disconnect in the conversation.”


Bodenröder says there was a “huge discussion” at a recent pharmaceutical conference as to whether the EU GDP guidelines apply to airlines as well as forwarders. He does however agree that tripartite meetings have particular value on major trade lanes and where there are multiple transport legs, that exposes the cargo to different climatic conditions. “These meetings can be very fruitful, but you need an open-minded forwarder,” he says. >>

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