- United has started flying doses of the Pfizer vaccine on passenger aircraft within the U.S.
- The carrier began international shipments on cargo-only flights from Europe last month.
- Large shippers like UPS and FedEx rely on passenger airlines to provide extra lift.
United Airlines on Tuesday said it has started transporting coronavirus vaccines within the U.S. in the bellies of its passenger aircraft, as carriers' role in distributing doses expands.
Hours after the U.S. approved the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine for emergency use late Friday, logistics giants and passenger airlines began mobilizing distribution around the U.S., a feat that requires close monitoring of temperature since the vaccine must be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature-controlled packages will have GPS tracking and other monitoring, shipping company executives said last week, while the Federal Aviation Administration said planes carrying vaccines will get priority treatment.
United's first domestic passenger flights carrying the vaccine went out after federal regulators approved the vaccine, a United Airlines spokeswoman told CNBC.
United Parcel Service and FedEx, partners in the Trump administration's vaccine production and distribution initiative Operation Warp Speed, routinely turn to commercial airlines to fly packages and other goods their networks can't handle.
"We're now continuing to meet with our partners to try to lay out a more scheduled flow of the vaccines," said Chris Busch, United's managing director of cargo, said in an interview Monday.
United declined to disclose the routing of the vaccines because it could violate agreements with customers like FedEx or UPS.
The Chicago-based airline last month became the country's first passenger airline to transport the vaccine to the U.S., operating five flights from Brussels to its hub at Chicago O'Hare International Airport using Boeing 777 aircraft dedicated solely for air cargo. Each aircraft is capable of holding more than 1 million doses and United received special approval from the FAA to carry more dry ice than is usually allowed for those flights.
The smaller, domestic shipments of the vaccine on flights carrying passengers is the next step in the delivery plan as doses are sent to administration sites around the country.
"Domestically, it doesn't necessarily have to be on a 777. That all depends on the size of the shipment, Busch said. "If there's a smaller amount, that could go on really any aircraft type."
United routinely carries temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and is in frequent contact with the FAA to ensure it is following safety rules, the spokeswoman said.
Other airlines are also starting shipments of the vaccine.
The arrival of the vaccines is coinciding with what's expected to be a record holiday shipping season. Shippers are paying higher rates as they scramble for space: the result of a surge in online shopping in the pandemic and the loss of aircraft belly capacity as airlines pared by flights around the world.
Busch said United has in some cases decided to add flights to help meet cargo demand, which has become a more important part of passenger carriers' revenue streams this year as the virus keeps many would-be travelers off planes.
"We're definitely seeing a strong peak season," said Busch. He said that air cargo demand is down in January from December but not as much as it usually is, pointing to a buoyant source of revenue compared with sharply lower passenger demand.