IATA hopeful for the future of pharmaceutical air freight

Chanice Henry

Attendees of this year’s Temperature Controlled Logistics conference heard from the International Air Transport Association on the latest developments with pharmaceutical air freight.

Francisco Rizzuto Cargo Specialist and Manager for Europe at IATA informed attendees that the aviation trade association had recently launched its Independent Validator’s Bulletin Board. A tool that pharmaceutical manufacturers can use to locate partners that are IATA CEIV pharma accredited. 


The CEIV certifies holders are qualified to move medical goods by air. It comprises of GDP, IATA and regional guidelines and is achieved through two rounds of audits – a gap analysis and validation. Just over 220 have been completed around the world.

The group, founded in Cuba in 1945, is said to be processing 75 CEIVs this year.  A few certifications are being processed this year for Africa, which is yet to see many approvals.

Improvements in pharma air transport

Some airports have enjoyed an increase in pharma air transport. Since the year of its CEIV certification, Milan Malpensa airport has seen no deviation claims. Minor irregularities dropped by 77% from 2016 to 2017. In the same period, PIL imports rose by 17% and exports also grew by 7%.

Francisco clarified that it’s dangerous to declare a medicines being shipped by air  just as PER (perishables) as most air stakeholders assume this to be food which doesn’t have as many handling controls as medicine. Listing the goods as PIL will inform the handlers they are moving pharmaceuticals.

Read more: More Temperature-Sensitive Medicines Moving by Ocean Freight Despite Market Shake-up

Air vs sea

The 280 IATA members represent 83% of global air traffic and managed to fly 50 million tonnes (scheduled) in 2016. According to a statement from Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's Director General and CEO in 2017:

“Air cargo had its strongest performance since the rebound from the global financial crisis in 2010. Demand grew by 9.0%.”

At the conference earlier this year, Francisco noted that only 0.5m tonnes of pharmaceutical and biologic goods are shipped by air in comparison to the 2.5m tonnes moved by sea.

The risk of temperature control excursions within air freight are seen as a possible reason for this.

From origin to destination, pharmaceutical goods pass through many different operators in the air cargo system, which is a large risk to medicine integrity. These different operators include the likes of:  freight forwarders, truckers, ground handlers at cold storage, the ground operations team, ramp agents and the aircraft airlines.

Read more: Time on the tarmac: Air-freighting controlled room temperature medicines

Education and communication

The airport environment is considered by some as a logistic black hole in terms how handoffs are conducted. For example, not all airlines provide time and sensitive air services, ground handlers can vary greatly on the services they offer  and many shippers need to know whether their air freight forwarder’s proclaimed ‘pharma service’ includes protection on the tarmac or not?

These stakeholders need to speak the same language to protect the medicine’s cold chain. If they aren’t speaking the same language, this miscommunication can emerge into expensive logistics confusions with these time sensitive bookings.  Global air capacity constraints can mean that mistakes can be costly, with shippers in some cases forced into paying premiums to get shipments to destinations on time.  

Negotiations between shippers and forwarders tend to focus on prices, leaving little time to look at look at requirements and temperature control expectations. The shipper must be cautious to impart the correct knowledge to the forwarders so they can execute tasks correctly and mistakes can be mitigated.  

The IATA audit format has progressed the quality of the transportation by educating the stakeholders in the air cargo system on the responsibilities to safeguard medicine integrity and quality.