Advisory Bulletins

COVID-19 vaccine distribution and challenges for airport operators

Montreal, 3 December 2020 – The rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines by the global pharmaceutical industry is a positive indicator for a return to a somewhat normal state of being in 2021.

The global distribution of these vaccines, however, is likely to be one of the biggest logistical challenges ever faced by the transportation and logistics industry.

Along with a multitude of stakeholders involved in the global distribution chain, the aviation industry will have a key role in facilitating the rapid and safe delivery of large volumes of doses of these vaccines including the syringes and other medical equipment needed for the vaccination campaigns.

In this regard, airports will play a central role acting as gateways for the incoming and outgoing shipments of vaccines and equipment. In most cases, airport operators will play a central role in facilitating and coordinating the activities related to this logistical process taking place on their premises.

Being adequately prepared, anticipating the possible impacts of this distribution process and understanding the part airport operators can play in this situation, will ensure the overall success of the vaccination campaigns that will be launched by States in the coming months.

The purpose of this advisory bulletin is to make airport operators aware of some of the challenges the global vaccine distribution process will pose as well as the role that airport operators may choose to play in this process.

It is recommended that the considerations listed below, should be reviewed and analyzed by airport operators as part of their planning processes.

This bulletin does not go into considerations related to the vaccine distribution process in local communities, priorities and phases that may be decided on a regional or State basis. It focuses on the practical aspects useful to airport operators.

Operational considerations

  • It is likely that the vast majority of vaccines will be distributed by air cargo in and out of the regions that produce the products. This may generate sudden increases in aircraft traffic flows for airports close to production facilities or airports that will be designated as main distribution hubs. Consideration should be given to the impacts of increases or significant variations in aircraft movements by airports close to production facilities or designated as hubs with the aim of minimizing potential delays of critical supplies.
  • In cases where airports do expect increases in aircraft movements due to proximity to production facilities or being designated as a distribution hub, airport operators should ensure coordination with the slot coordinator to facilitate the allocation of ad-hoc slots and may also want to consider any impacts on increases in night flights and potential impacts on local communities.
  • Airport cargo facilities that are equipped to store and manage large volumes of pharmaceutical grade cold or ultra-cold materials will be needed as points of entry for vaccine distribution that could then be further distributed in a hub and spoke manner from these centers. Depending on the proximity to the final destination, the regional distribution method of vaccines may be done through additional air cargo flights or road freight. Consideration should therefore be given to increases in the volume of aircraft movements or road freight traffic in and out of these distribution hubs with a focus being put on minimizing delays to the movement of the product.
  • Some airports at the receiving end of the flights out of the hubs, may not be fully equipped for maintaining the cold chain at all times. Consideration should be given to the operational and facility needs that this could generate for individual airports as well as any partnerships or collaborations that can be set up locally to cater to these needs.

Safety considerations

  • As some of the vaccines will have to be stored at temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius at all times, it will be essential to maintain the ultra-cold chain throughout the transportation processes. The use of large volumes of dry ice is needed to sustain these low temperatures and may generate risks if not adequately handled in the cargo logistics process.
  • Dry ice is considered to be a “dangerous good”, according to ICAO technical guidance (Doc 9284), and therefore its transportation in aircraft, in particular the volumes allowed, is regulated. However, given the ultra-cold requirements of some of the vaccines linked with the volumes that will be necessary, discussions are underway in ICAO to increase the volume of dry ice that may be transported in a single aircraft, provided strict protocols are followed. In the case of an incident or accident, involving an aircraft carrying significant amounts of dry ice, the Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) response may need to be adapted.
  • The dispatching of large volumes of vaccines and equipment into airports at the receiving end of flights originating in the main hubs, could see flight operations conducted by larger aircraft than those normally operating at the airport. This can generate safety risks and disrupt normal airport operations. Particular consideration should be given to the operational and safety aspects of accommodating larger aircraft than those normally operating on the airport.
  • Airports that will be affected by vaccine distribution operations that will incur changes to their standard operating procedures, should conduct a safety risk assessment of the overall changes and impacts so as to identify hazards and implement mitigation measures.

Security considerations

  • The sensitive nature of the vaccines, the high level of demand there will be for obtaining them and the initial short supply has the potential to generate some attention by persons or groups with malicious intent. Consideration should be given to increased protection of these goods and/or the facilities that will house them. In many cases, this will require coordination with local security authorities.
  • In some regions there are “anti-vaccine” groups that have made themselves visible. These groups may equally pose a threat to the movement and storage of vaccines in or around air cargo facilities.
  • Airports that will be affected by vaccine distribution operations should conduct a risk and threat assessment with the relevant entities and ensure that adequate mitigation measures are implemented.

Actions by airport operators

ACI recommends that airport operators:

  • make themselves aware of and, depending on the plans being made and the local organization, be directly involved in the development of the regional or national plans for vaccine distribution
  • establish contacts with relevant government authorities (customs, health authorities, aviation, security, etc.) involved in the vaccine distribution planning process to ensure that the role and responsibilities of the airport operator, as an infrastructure provider and airport operations facilitator, is clearly defined and understood. Attention should also be given to possible liability issues
  • establish contacts with and initiate coordination on plans being made by the air cargo community operating on or providing service to their airports
  • initiate contacts with national or local security agencies that may be involved in preparations for ensuring the security of these sensitive air cargo operations
  • conduct an initial assessment of their level of preparedness for facilitating or managing the Covid-19 vaccine distribution at their specific location, and
  • if air cargo operations are likely to be conducted into or out of the airport, establish a general operating framework, taking into consideration the points identified in this bulletin as well as any other relevant information available through the national or local coordination activities.


  1. Airports Council International (ACI), the trade association of the world’s airports, was founded in 1991 with the objective of fostering cooperation among its member airports and other partners in world aviation, including the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Air Transport Association and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization. In representing the best interests of airports during key phases of policy development, ACI makes a significant contribution toward ensuring a global air transport system that is safe, secure, customer-centric and environmentally sustainable. As of January 2020, ACI serves 668 members, operating 1979 airports in 176 countries.