Virgin Atlantic: Passenger planes will be used to transport Covid vaccine

Hazel Plush
·4-min read
The vaccine: precious cargo indeed - istock
The vaccine: precious cargo indeed - istock

The aviation industry is expected to play a crucial role in the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine, using cargo capabilities on board passenger flights – and it's already preparing for the task, says the boss of Virgin Atlantic Cargo.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been working hard to transport essential items all over the world,” Dominic Kennedy, Managing Director, tells Telegraph Travel. “At the start of the year, we used our passenger planes to import essential PPE to Britain from Asia, and then the focus shifted to transporting testing kits. 

“Now, we will be using our aircraft to carry vaccine drugs – the next chapter of this unprecedented year.”

The Pfizer vaccine, which has now been approved for use in Britain, is of course no ordinary cargo item: it must be kept at -80 degrees. “The temperature control is a challenge not just for us, but for every airline,” says Kennedy. “It’s not the act of keeping it cold that’s the challenge, but the sheer quantity of dry ice that’s required: by weight, you need five times as much dry ice than vaccine – so for every 200kg of vaccine, that’s 1,000kg of dry ice.”

Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide, which is a restricted substance on board aircraft. It's a logistical complication for airlines, but not an insurmountable one. “The maximum quantity of dry ice our aircraft can currently carry is 1,000kg,” explains Kennedy. “So while everybody would love to fill every inch of a cargo hold with vaccine, unfortunately it’s not quite that simple.

“But we have streamlined the process, and have also introduced a new ‘Pharma Secure’ service for transportation – with a 24/7 support team, automatic live status updates and periodical integrity checks [on the drug].”

Until this year, cargo accounted for just 10 per cent of Virgin Atlantic’s turnover, but while passengers have stayed grounded it has fulfilled a vital role in the transportation of goods. “For the first time in the airline’s history, we are operating cargo-only flights,” says Kennedy. “It is a testament to the hard work of our teams that we have completely re-engineered our cargo business into a successful freight-only operation, enabling businesses to transport critical supplies around the world.”

“We used to be limited by passenger traffic: we could only send cargo on routes that were being served by passenger flights. But now, cargo business is leading the way – and we are flying to destinations that we’ve never flown to or from before.”

Until this year, cargo accounted for just 10 per cent of Virgin Atlantic’s turnover - istock
Until this year, cargo accounted for just 10 per cent of Virgin Atlantic’s turnover - istock

Those new cargo-led services include a flight between Heathrow and Milan Malpensa, which was launched in September – transporting industrial items and high fashion from Milan. It also introduced routes to Brussels, Chicago and Dublin for the first time – enabling technology and medical supplies to achieve same-day connections to the US, Europe and Africa.

Without the weight of passengers and their baggage, cargo handlers have been able to maximise the freight potential of every flight – and in the case of transporting PPE, have even been able to carry boxes in the cabin. “The boxes are ideally proportioned to carry on seats, and secured in place,” explains Kennedy.

Flights of fish, fashion and fast cars 

We rarely spare a thought for the cargo hidden beneath our plane seats, but – even pre-pandemic – the transportation of goods says much about global tastes, trade and commerce.

On flights from London to New York, for example, you may have shared your plane with fresh salmon – one of the UK’s biggest perishable exports – while routes to Asia and the Middle East often bear branded Marks and Spencer food items destined for premium supermarkets.

From Miami, exports of lobster are a common cargo addition, while flights from Africa are typically loaded with fresh fruit being transported to Europe.

Winter is an especially busy time of year, explains Kennedy: “With Christmas approaching and Black Friday sales, we have huge consignments of ecommerce stock from the US and Asia – all those things that people have been buying, or sending to friends and family in the mail.”

‘White glove’ items are usually a regular addition to planes’ cargo holds – such as fine art, fast cars and other high-worth items – but not-so this year. “This has been quieter during the pandemic as we haven’t had major art galleries moving their exhibitions – but there is still a demand for transporting automotive vehicles. We recently flew five brand new Aston Martins from Heathrow, for example.”

After 15 years of service, Kennedy thought he’d “seen it all” – but says that this year has been the “proudest” for him and his team. “In March, we worked tirelessly to enable the transportation of PPE between Asia and the world, working with the Foreign Office and countless stakeholders. Standing on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport, watching our first aircraft take part in this global effort, was a moment I’ll never forget – a career highlight of the highest order.”