Most aviation professionals don’t envision the Russian-built An-124 super-freighter playing a role in COVID-19 vaccine distribution because it’s an older, drafty plane often used to haul extra-heavy, oversize cargoes. Think helicopters, turbines and trucks. But the An-124 has a unique advantage that could make it useful: no limit on dry ice.
That could be a critical factor when trying to quickly get large amounts of temperature-sensitive vaccine to people around the world, especially in less developed areas and when airfreight capacity is already scarce because of strong trade and widespread closures of passenger operations.
The vaccine developed by Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and German partner BioNTech needs to be kept at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius) or below before opening and Moderna’s COVID vaccine requires storage at temperatures of minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 Celsius). In the absence of freezers capable of subarctic temperatures during transport, lots of dry ice will be needed to ensure thermal containers maintain the appropriate temperatures.
But dry ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide and when it breaks down the vapors are poisonous. A high concentration can be deadly, so aviation authorities limit how much dry ice can be carried in aircraft. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that United Airlines received permission to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight — five times more than usually allowed on a passenger aircraft — when operating in cargo-only mode. And South Korea relaxed restrictions on the amount of dry ice allowed on aircraft, according to Reuters.
Rules changes aren’t necessary with the An-124 because the more spacious the cargo cabin the more dry ice that is allowed under international dangerous goods regulations. Also, the An-124 has a special ventilation system that is separate from the crew cabin.
Those features and capacity constraints for shippers across the board have motivated Moscow-based Volga-Dnepr Group to offer the mega-freighters to pharmaceutical customers with COVID vaccines. Officials with the company’s global health care team told FreightWaves the An-124 can fit up to 56 small (RKN) or 20 large (RAP) insulated containers. Specialists will tailor shipments to meet each vaccine’s requirements.
Normally, preparing shipments with dry ice is the responsibility of the cargo owner or freight agent, with carriers checking that cartons are properly packed and dry ice limitations are met. Airlines are more involved in planning now because the scale of temperature-controlled shipments being rushed to medical facilities in a short period is far greater than routine transportation.
Volga-Dnepr, which operates a large fleet of Boeing 747 freighters through its AirBridgeCargo subsidiary, expects the An-124 to be booked for vaccines just as shippers have used the aircraft as an alternative due to the capacity crunch. So far this year, the fleet has transported personal protective equipment, medical gowns and e-commerce packages — lightweight goods that fill planes from a volume standpoint.
“The most efficient freighter within our fleet for vaccine transportation is the Boeing 747 and we put all our efforts to leverage most shipments onboard this aircraft,” Volga-Dnepr’s health care team said in a statement. Given the shortage of airlift, “we think that the healthcare industry will desperately need the An-124 fleet for dedicated projects.”
The An-124s could also support the COVID vaccine effort by carrying related supplies, such as vials, injectors and packaging, as well as reverse logistics to bring back empty thermal containers, the company said.
The An-124’s unique features include two internal cranes, nose-and-tail loading with expanded ramps, and multileg landing gear each with 24 wheels that enable it to tilt the fuselage lower for easier loading and unloading.
Volga-Dnepr said it is drawing on its broad experience handling pharmaceutical and dangerous goods to ensure safe and secure delivery of vaccines. The company is certified as a pharmaceutical center of excellence by the International Air Transport Association and knows how to deal with lithium batteries found in some temperature-controlled containers with active cooling systems.
However, the recent grounding of its eight An-124s as a safety precaution while an accident investigation is underway could disrupt Volga-Dnepr’s plans to market the aircraft for vaccine purposes.
Some planned vaccine shipments on An-124 aircraft are being switched to other freighters within the group, Volga-Dnepr said in its email exchange. “Right now, flight safety is our priority and we will do everything possible to get An-124 into the service and support the world healthcare industry with vaccine transportation.”
Ukraine-based Antonov Airlines also operates seven An-124s, but is less focused on potential vaccine opportunities. “It depends on the requirements for transportation of the containers. We regularly transport sensitive cargo such as satellites that require special flight conditions. If an An-124 or An-225 can meet the technical requirements of the vaccines, we can plan such transportation,” Commercial Director Andriy Blagovisniy said.