Air Cargo Management

No room for error

Julian Sutch, Emirates SkyCargo
photo_camera Julian Sutch, Emirates SkyCargo

For Air Cargo Management, Head of pharma sales at Emirates SkyCargo Julian Sutch explains that collaboration, advanced technology and data-led practices are key to ensuring the safe and efficient worldwide transportation of pharma cargo.

While a cohesive and uninterrupted supply chain is essential to all industries, it is mission-critical when it comes to pharma. Highly sensitive and often lifesaving cargo requires temperature-controlled storage and distribution, coupled with speedy transfer to ensure the integrity of treatments and medicines.

There is no room for error. Even temperature fluctuations of as little as one degree can result in entire shipments being classed as unusable and having to be destroyed. In fact, earlier this year, a report from the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science estimated that failures in temperature-controlled cold chain logistics cost the pharmaceutical industry approximately $35 billion. As the healthcare industry continues to develop more specific and complex treatments, which will be both more sensitive and harder to replace, the need for an effective and efficient logistics network is clear.

However, the pharmaceutical supply chain is a complex, multi-stakeholder network that relies on seamless synchronisation to be most efficient. Third party bodies have played a huge part in facilitating better cross-functional collaboration. For example, Pharma.Aero unites life sciences shippers and service providers to address transportation challenges and opportunities in the end-to-end chain from the manufacturing plants to the end patient. Likewise, IATA’s rigorous temperature control regulations hold all air freighters accountable and set industry standards to ensure safe and reliable transportation.

Over the past decade, we have seen the positive impact of these independent organisations, as well as leaps forward in technology and processes that deliver greater efficiency and enables us to transport sensitive cargo safely across the world. Packaging on pharmaceuticals has advanced significantly, extending the lifecycle of products. Active and intelligent packaging are engineered with functions that respond to changes in the atmosphere for an additional layer of protection.

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Emirates SkyCargo
Cool dollies enable rapid loading and unloading

From an airline perspective, sensitive cargo is most vulnerable while on the ramp on or off the aircraft, so mitigating this risk is essential. Innovations such as cool dollies enable rapid loading and unloading, while providing additional protection while cargo is in transit. Given the Middle East climate, at Emirates SkyCargo, we have invested heavily in cool dollies, and operate the largest fleet, a total of 50. For shipments which rely on advanced passive packaging during transit, add-ons such as white covers offer additional peace of mind. Lightweight and water resistant, white covers shield the cargo from extreme ambient temperature, both hot and cold, while being loaded.

Likewise, infrastructure plays a key role. Across our dual-hub in Dubai, we have invested over $200 million to build our capabilities, including 15,000 square metres of dedicated storage for temperature-sensitive goods, which allowed us to scale up our capacity during the Covid-19 vaccine distribution drive and ultimately facilitate the transportation of over 1.5 billion doses between 2020 and 2022.

The evolution into personalised healthcare puts more pressure on the logistics ecosystem to ensure priceless cargo is transported correctly every time. We are seeing an increased demand for cell and gene therapy, clinical trials, and human samples from around 200,000kg per year five years ago to now over 1.3 million kilograms this year already.

Working in close co-ordination with our customers, we developed Emirates Vital, a purpose-fit and future-ready specialist product, designed to transport clinical trials, cell and gene therapies, as well as organs. Emirates Vital offers fast connection times of under four hours in Dubai and utilises the bulk hold of the aircraft and dedicated vans on the ramp to move the shipments to the connecting flights.

While every part of the logistics network will individually develop products and innovations that offer better protection and minimise operational risk, stronger and more seamless collaboration is one of the greatest changes that will drive efficiency. No one stakeholder can do it alone and only through cross-industry co-operation can we make real impact.

The first step to achieve this is greater data accessibility and visibility across the full supply chain. Shippers largely rely on data provided by individual members of the supply chain, which is not always shared; when it is, there is no uniform format or system to monitor and record the information. Even where data is available, it can come too late. Data loggers, for example, allow customers to deep dive into the journey and ensure that the temperature remained compliant throughout, but this is available only once the product has reached its final destination and the data is downloaded. Through data sharing and live transmitting, we would be able to intervene and, in some cases, course correct, ultimately protecting cargo which may be irreplaceable. This is another example of where third-party organisations such as Pharma.Aero play an essential role in uniting the wider industry.

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Emirates SkyCargo
White covers shield cargo from extreme ambient temperatures

Zooming out, integrating more technology and data-led practices would drive efficiencies across the board. Real-time information enables customers, suppliers, freight forwarders and airlines to anticipate and provide the right products, assessing and utilising the best transport routes and most cost-effective prices.

At Emirates SkyCargo, we are proud market leaders, transporting over two million kilograms of pharmaceutical cargo every week. With our state-of-the-art hub in Dubai, we can reach 2.5 billion people within four hours of flight, and ultimately serve 140 destinations across our vast global network.

While the cool chain remains an ever evolving and complex supply chain to manage, we are committed to lending our insight and capabilities to strengthening the industry approach to transporting pharmaceutical cargo safely across the world. By working more collaboratively with other network stakeholders and, of course, our customers, we can drive efficiency, leveraging our expertise to make the world work better.

This feature was first published in Air Cargo Management – August/September 2023. To read the magazine in full, click here.

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