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Vaccine cargo lifts airlines as passenger traffic sinks

Airlines are reconfiguring aircraft and getting more planes to meet the cargo transport demand, which is expected to swell as vaccinations open up for all adults from 1 MayPremium
Airlines are reconfiguring aircraft and getting more planes to meet the cargo transport demand, which is expected to swell as vaccinations open up for all adults from 1 May

At a time fewer Indians are flying to limit the risk of coronavirus infections, airlines are focusing on cargo transport for the world’s largest immunization drive underway, transporting millions of vaccines doses across the length and breadth of the country

At a time fewer Indians are flying to limit the risk of coronavirus infections, airlines are focusing on cargo transport for the world’s largest immunization drive underway, transporting millions of vaccines doses across the length and breadth of the country.

Airlines are reconfiguring aircraft and getting more planes to meet the cargo transport demand, which is expected to swell as vaccinations open up for all adults from 1 May.

“IndiGo is currently the leader in terms of the amount of vaccine being transported by air within India—we anticipate this will continue, given our wide network and number of flights, even after some reductions due to lower passenger demand," said Willie Boulter, chief commercial officer at IndiGo.

“While there is no more important mission to complete properly, and all our attention to detail is given to delivering vaccine shipments swiftly and safely, the actual tonnage is relatively small and well within capabilities. We look forward to expanding this vital national effort further as production increases," Boulter added.

IndiGo said it transported 81,437kg of covid vaccine shipments between 12 January and 12 April from key vaccine manufacturing points in Pune, Hyderabad and Mumbai, securing a leading market share of 36.6% in the vaccine transport segment.

The airline is also sourcing four Airbus A321ceo aircraft, each of which will be converted from a passenger jet to a full freighter configuration.

Meanwhile, no-frill carrier AirAsia India has transported over 50 tonnes of vaccine cargo to date, carrying about 17 million doses or about 18-20% of total vaccines transported across the country, a company spokesperson said.

“We have offered committed cargo space in our commercial flights to freight agents appointed by Serum India and Bharat Biotech that they have utilized. We can also operate cargo-only flights for ferrying covid vaccine in case any pharma firm has to air transport large volumes," the spokesperson added.

IndiGo and SpiceJet have dedicated cargo planes for vaccine transport, while other airlines utilize the belly cargo space of their passenger planes.

Airlines have also increased their dedicated cargo capacities to move goods, medicines, groceries, and other supplies.

“At a time when the recovery of passenger traffic has been hampered by the rising number of infections, airlines are increasingly focusing on their cargo operations to make up for the loss in passenger revenue," a top official at a Gurugram-based airline said on condition of anonymity.

“We hope for passenger traffic to bounce back with an increasing vaccination drive for all age groups starting 1 May. However, it may take a few months for passenger traffic to bounce back to January-February 2021 levels," the official added.

IndiGo, which has over 280 aircraft, has converted 10 of its passenger aircraft into freight carriers with a capacity to ferry up to 20 tonnes of cargo. Rival SpiceJet has a dedicated freighter fleet of 19 cargo aircraft, which includes Boeing 737 freighters and Q400s.

A Vistara spokesperson said the airline has been working with the relevant logistics companies for facilitating vaccine transport.

National carrier Air India, too, saw its cargo operations grow after introducing all-cargo flights on certain sectors, mostly international, an airline official said. “Air India is doing its bit in transporting cargo, including vaccines, on the belly of passenger aircraft," the official said, adding cargo remains a key source of revenue for the airline in the absence of growth in passenger traffic.

Spokespersons of SpiceJet Ltd and GoAir were not immediately available for comments.

Airlines are focusing on cargo transport for the world’s largest immunization drive that is currently under way.reuters
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Airlines are focusing on cargo transport for the world’s largest immunization drive that is currently under way.reuters
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