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Freighters seek pharma highs

A growing number of freighter operators are eyeing Basel’s pharmaceutical market, while others are seeking certification. But are volumes sufficient to satisfy all? Ian Putzger reports

Qatar Airways kicked off 2015 with the launch of a new freighter route. Since January, the Middle Eastern carrier has been operating an Airbus A330 freighter twice a week from Brussels to Basel, which then continues to its hub in Doha. Linking two airports with significant activities in the pharmaceutical industry on their doorstep, Qatar dubbed the new freighter run ‘Pharma Express’.


The airline has already introduced its own product geared toward this segment of the business a year earlier: QR Pharma. This comprises service offerings for pharma and healthcare shipments that require active or passive temperature-controlled solutions.


Basel has a large pharmaceutical industry and is home to the headquarters of many major pharma companies. Over the past 18 months, the city’s EuroAirport has become something of a Mecca for freighters. Last September saw the arrival of AirBridgeCargo with a Boeing 747 freighter coming in once a week en-route from Amsterdam to Moscow.


Like Qatar Airways Cargo, the Russian carrier’s management has emphasised the importance of pharmaceutical traffic for the new service, pointing out that “Basel has one of the highest concentrations of successful life science businesses in the world, including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical technology organisations.”


Robert van de Weg, senior vice president of marketing and sales, said at the launch: “The healthcare industry relies strongly on the speed of air cargo and its ability to maintain the integrity of products through strict temperature-control services. Operating from Basel will enable us to provide a fast and reliable link into Russia and Asia for customers in the industry, as well as those in other industries that have grown up to support the healthcare market in Switzerland.”


Early in 2014, Emirates and LAN Cargo launched freighter links to Basel; the Latin American carrier extended one of its transatlantic runs serving Frankfurt to the Swiss airport before returning to Brazil. Alvaro Carril, vice president of sales and marketing, stresses that the freighter goes to Guarulhos, São Paulo’s passenger airport, which is closer to downtown than Viracopos, the city’s traditional freighter gateway.


“Basel is going well for us. We are getting the pharmaceutical traffic that we were targeting,” Carril says, adding that LAN wants to boost its uplift of traffic from Swiss hub. Owing to the routing via Frankfurt, the airline has so far combined exports from both of the European points to Latin America, though the plan is to fill it completely in Basel.


This September, Airline Cargo Management, in partnership with PMPS magazine, will launch a unique, new event: The FlyPharma Conference 2015. FlyPharma attendees will leave with a clear appreciation of key issues impacting the pharma and air cargo sectors, with an understanding of how these affect all parties in different ways, and with a wealth of valuable new contacts.


Find out more:


Freighter operators are in hot pursuit of pharmaceutical loads in an effort to restore or boost their financial health. In January, Panalpina opened a link between Huntsville and São Paulo with a 747-400 freighter (extending its run from Asia via Europe to the US). Pharmaceuticals are a key target market for the new service, according to Roberto Schiavone, senior vice president, the Americas.


“This is definitely one of the lanes where we are going to focus on pharmaceuticals,” he says, pointing to the large pharmaceutical business in Brazil. Having controlled capacity to São Paulo gives Panalpina an edge in going after pharmaceutical and perishable freight, he adds.


Pharmaceuticals are widely regarded as the domain of passenger airlines, which usually operate much higher frequencies than all-cargo operators. With their emphasis on speed to market and the highly perishable nature of their products, pharma shippers usually favour belly capacity.


“As far as pharma is concerned, anything that can be loaded in the lower deck can also be on the main deck, so it does not matter what aircraft you use, as long as you have the right capacity at the right place,” comments Ram Menen, the former head of cargo at Emirates.


Stan Wraight, executive director of Strategic Aviation Solutions International, says that bellies are usually favoured. Besides the frequency advantage, there is the matter of breakdowns to consider. If a passenger aircraft has a mechanical problem, the airline often has another aircraft ready before long to avoid the cost of putting stranded passengers up in hotels, he notes.


“This industry relies on belly capacity, but it is true that it has on occasion big slugs of business that cannot be accommodated in a belly,” notes Oliver Evans, chief cargo officer of Swiss WorldCargo.


In March this year, Cargolux loaded 36 pallets of pharmaceuticals from DB Schenker on to one of its 747s headed from Luxembourg to Indianapolis, which marked the first full charter flight operated by the cargo airline on this route that was fully dedicated to this type of traffic. It came 10 years after the start of the carrier’s service to Indianapolis for DB Schenker. Cargolux currently serves 15 destinations worldwide with flights carrying healthcare traffic for the German forwarder.


The airline underscored its focus on pharmaceuticals in January 2014 when it announced that it had obtained Good Distribution Practice (GDP) status. This attested that the company’s management system fulfils the requirements of the EU directive, Guidelines on Good Distribution Practice of Medicinal Products for Human Use, as well as of WHO guidelines. Cargolux was the first airline worldwide to be GDP certified.


Certification is on the rise. Swiss WorldCargo has embraced GDP and insists its partners in stations where the carrier does not perform the handling also seek it. “I hope it will become the norm,” says Evans. “This is what the pharmaceutical industry is hoping.”


IATA has chimed in with its own certified scheme, the Center of Excellence for Independent Validators (CEIV) pharmaceutical logistics programme, which is also gaining traction. In early April, CAL announced that it too was seeking CEIV accreditation, which management expects to complete in July. The Israeli carrier is working on the programme in tandem with Liege airport, with the declared intention of becoming the first group with a certified airline, as well as certified ground handling operations.


The idea of certified pharma operations also appeals to airport executives, not just carriers. Brussels blazed a trail there last year when it became the first airport to be awarded CEIV Pharma status. 11 companies covering the entire Brussels cool chain took part in the 2014 programme: three on-line handling agents, two airlines, five forwarding agents and one trucking company. This past March, BRUcargo announced a second wave of CEIV validation, involving nine more operators seeking the CEIV badge, among them DHL Global Forwarding, Kuehne + Nagel, Geodis Wilson and smaller players like Hazgo, FB Logistics, Ninatrans and Van Dievel Transport.


“With the launch of this second group, the majority of all pharma shipments at Brussels Airport will be handled in a fully certified cool chain,” declared Nathan De Valck, cargo account manager at Brussels Airport, when the announcement was made.


“Brussels Airport is now recognised by the pharma industry as the preferred pharma gateway in our region,” commented Steven Polmans, head of cargo at the hub. Brussels and the region of Flanders are home to 146 life science companies with biotech activities, of which 50 are related to healthcare, 46 are active in the bio-based economy and 50 are life science providers. >>

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