“All cargo is precious cargo…”

…noted Glyn Hughes, Director General TIACA, in summarizing the panel titled “Precious Cargo”. In addition to this expansion of the term, the event offered interesting insights into new developments in this product segment, which is extremely important for air freight in every respect. These included packaging, handling, temperature requirements and, last but not least, high transport rates.

Frank Van Gelder is a highly recognized expert in pharmaceutical transport worldwide  –  company courtesy

The term ‘Precious Cargo’ is used by the industry primarily to describe the transportation of pharmaceutical products from the shipper to the recipient. That is nothing new. However, addressing the panel, the authors of this report remarked that according to their understanding, paintings from Pablo Picasso or Lionel Feininger, sculptures made by Leonardo da Vinci or, quite simply, gold bars, diamonds, or banknotes as well as expensive racehorses fall under this term. This was consented by the panelists.

Precious and expensive
Yet, apart from these conceptual subtleties, the topic mostly revolved around pharmaceuticals, due to the paramount importance of the product for the cargo industry and supposedly because Frank Van Gelder, Secretary General of the lobby organization, Pharma.Aero, sat on stage. He pointed out that in some cases pharmaceuticals represent a far higher value than electronics, machinery, and even precious metals. When transported by air, the value per kilogram varies between €600 and €1,400, said Frank. In contrast, pharma shipped by vessel averages €70 per kg in worth. Further to this, Van Gelder delivered an insight into the latest development of heart valves. A single specimen of this tube-like small device costs approx. €100. Once packed in a ULD, the value of the entire consignment could reach two million euros, or even more, he noted.

Latest trends
He explained that patients living in remote areas, be they in Australia, Canada, Brazil or many parts of Africa, increasingly tend to use portable Bio markers. This enables medics to get an instant overview over their health status, and saves patients from having to travel long distances to reach a hospital or specialized clinic in order to have their condition checked.
Frank went on to say that, nowadays, special cancer treatments are in some cases done by micro radioactive products, and these need to be transported in a very special way e.g. using liquid nitrogen – a time critical necessity to prevent them from being spoiled.
Touching the environmental footprint of pharma transported by air, he admitted that the CO2 emissions are considerable. Modal shift from air to ocean might be an option but does not fit many time and temperature critical pharmaceuticals. This said, air freight will remain being the most efficient mode of pharma transportation, despite high prices in comparison to ocean.

From air to sea
Finally, he astonished attendees by revealing that some vaccines can meanwhile be freeze-dried. They resemble instant coffee that can be dissolved in water as soon as they are needed. These powdered serums can be stored for longer periods in unconditioned warehouses. So, their supply from overseas does not necessarily need to be fast, enabling shippers and forwarders a modal shift from expensive air to lower-priced ocean freight.
Will the air cargo industry lose business due to freeze-dried vaccines? “Yes, it will, but only to a marginal degree,” Frank admitted. However, the loss is easily compensated by the global upswing of other precious cargo items needing air transportation.

Gerton Hulsman / Heiner Siegmund

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