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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

The Inside Scoop

What’s the air cargo process like from an airline’s perspective? Nature, time and cost all come into the frame as one carrier provides the facts

We’ve all experienced it at some point within logistics operations: something occurs, we receive limited information that only enables us to paint the slightest fraction of the full picture and then we’re forced to wait. We attempt to scratch further beneath the surface, but the answers we receive are vague and insufficient. Panic rears its head and has no problem settling in. The vacuum created by the absence of information gets filled with fear for the worst, largely based on speculation or the outcome of previous experiences.

Will the shipment make it on time or will the isotopes degrade beyond point of usability? Will the cooling agent last for the entirety of the shipment’s journey – now that the time has doubled due to inclement weather? How can I keep track of my shipments? The great news is that these situations can be avoided, and carriers have been introducing mechanisms to do just that. Communicating effectively with customers in a timely manner gives them not only the brush to paint the picture, but the entire pièce de résistance. Ultimately, carriers abide by the following mantra: get it there safely, on time and intact while adhering to designated temperatures.

Despite the guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOPs) that have been tirelessly worked on to support the aforementioned mantra, Mother Nature sometimes sings to a different tune and reminds you who’s in charge. Throughout this article, the carrier’s perspective in the cool chain will be presented and effective communication from all sides will be discussed, to better ensure the safe and timely delivery of a shipment.

The Cool Chain and Cargo Process

When a shipment is delivered to a cargo facility, it is processed and registered in the carrier’s system. It is then handled (based on the specified handling requirements) and scheduled to board the flight. As this takes place, cargo agents simultaneously stage the shipment for flight – that is, they place the shipment on the equipment or aircraft loading device (such as a pallet or container). Finally, the shipment is brought out to the tarmac and loaded into the belly of the aircraft. This SOP is followed rigorously and in most instances, nature cooperates. But sometimes, she has her own plans.

Those who muster the courage to drive in -40ºC conditions know all too well that car doors freeze; so too can aircraft cargo compartment doors. Visibility can be too poor to safely operate an aircraft and thunderstorms can ground fleets for hours. Conversely, extremely hot runways can mean shorter take off lengths, which in turn mean less cargo than planned can be loaded onto the aircraft. Nature can wreak havoc on the operations if she wants, and can swing in either direction – hot or cold.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, between February and July 2011 in the US, more than 50 per cent of delayed flights were caused by weather, and extreme weather (excluding regular weather delays) accounted for 0.59 per cent of all flight delays (1,2).

Beyond weather, unexpected delays caused by numerous external factors such as security, customs and maintenance can also increase the amount of time the shipment is held on the tarmac and subsequently exposed to the elements. Carriers react to mitigate the impact of the delay on cargo shipments however, it can be difficult to respect the desired ambient temperature for the shipment, especially if it is shipped in passive packaging.

Can Your Packaging Withstand the Journey?

Is there really a difference between active and passive packaging from a carrier’s perspective? To put it simply, yes: packaging should withstand any abnormality in transit.

A challenge carriers face when transporting ambient pharmaceutical traffic is to maintain the given temperature even when no cooling/heating units are being used – especially if no labels are present. For this reason, pharmaceutical companies have developed labels indicating how their shipments need to be transported.

To create consistency, as not everyone uses the same standard, IATA has addressed this, and a time and temperature task force was created to ensure standardisation with labels. This provides clear handling instructions with temperature requirements, enabling carriers to ensure that the operational staff adhere to the requirements set forth on the labels. Product viability is communicated not only to headquarters but to operational staff as well.

The more a carrier knows about what’s in the box and requirements to avoid spoilage, the more operational staff understand the critical importance of the handling requirements and can develop SOPs that work towards ensuring that the efficacy of the product is maintained throughout its journey with the carrier.

However, some carriers view these labels as adding confusion to an operational environment that is already inundated with labels for everything. To boot, not all labels specify the precise handling SOP and no two storage facilities are perfectly identical.

Some Pointers

If a label affixed to a box reads ‘2 to 8ºC’ or ‘15 to 25ºC’, are you to assume that this is the temperature requirement for outside the box or within the box? How are you supposed to verify the temperature within the box without opening it? It’s important to communicate the precise requirements to the carrier to eliminate uncertainty or ambiguity.

Every temperature controlled storage facility and every transit point offers different temperatures and different environments. While carriers do their best to ensure that the ambient temperature at facilities in warm and humid climates match closely to those in less temperate climates, there will unfortunately be some variances and fluctuations. One suggestion is to route the shipment on a non-stop flight to minimise exposure to temperature deviations on tarmacs. However, if a non-stop flight is unavailable, there’s no need to panic and you can be confident that an international carrier has a skilled workforce highly trained in working with these types of transhipments regularly.

Most carriers have developed a myriad of solutions to cater to the transportation of temperature-sensitive shipments. If you typically ship using a general shipping solution, perhaps it’s time to inquire about the benefits of specialised solutions that were created for this very purpose and include product guarantees.

While your shipments are in the hands of carriers, what can you do if you don’t want to just sit back and relax? Track and trace is the best option. Many carriers have introduced webenabled tracking tools so that clients can be kept abreast of their shipment’s whereabouts. Additionally, many have also introduced electronic messaging tools that notify you of updates or reasons for possible delays. Take the example of the earthquake that struck Japan in March. Many carriers sent out emails to subscribed customers notifying them of what to do with their shipment to avoid having it sit in inventory at the cargo facility. These communication tools constitute the last brush stroke, and the process comes full circle.

While communication is essential between pharmaceutical suppliers and freight forwarders, as well as between the latter and carriers, it is key for all three parties to understand the viability of the product in transit. Joint discussions are always therefore a more favourable option to pharmaceutical companies, so that the challenges of a shipment are presented and discussed accordingly. After all, we’re all striving to achieve a common goal, and can work together to create strong and long lasting relationships that encourage open and honest dialogue.


  1. Visit ot_delaycause1.asp?type=3&pn=1
  2. Visit ot_delaycause1.asp?type=21&pn=1

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Maureen Kam is Manager of Sales Development – Industry Solutions at Air Canada Cargo. Her responsibility is to raise the profile of Air Canada Cargo’s Cool Chain solutions. She works closely with industry experts in each region globally to ensure that Air Canada Cargo can provide innovative commercial solutions to the often complex issues that arise. Prior to joining the Cargo division, Maureen worked at Air Canada in the capacity of Regional Manager SWUSA, MWUSA and British Columbia, which enabled her to work with some of the largest corporations and agencies throughout the Americas. Email:
Maureen Kam
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