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

Although some flaws remain in transporting Controlled Room Temperature (CRT) drugs via air-freight, providers in the space are taking strides to make the air more viable for medical cargo

Tarmac exposure

Tarmac exposure time – a phrase that can instil fear into many pharma logistics professionals. Many perceive this as one of the biggest challenges when transporting medicines via airfreight.

Big pharma firm, Pharmascience, encountered shocking results regarding tarmac exposure from a set of international airfreight tests.

It transported a test pallet of paper towels across multiple destinations including: Montreal, Toronto, Bogota, Columbia, KSA and Brussels, Belgium.


The experiment was performed during the summer months to evaluate the tarmac temperature during a “general cargo” shipment.

Risk mitigation for the container was not deployed, for instance thermo blankets or an air pharma passive service.  As a result, the temperature exposure was very high. Up to 63°C in Bogota, to 49 °C in Montreal.

Gilles Jr Grégoire, Senior Manager of Global Logistics at Pharmascience explained that “The length of the temperature deviation was also incredible. We were above 25 °C for as much as 34 hours in Columbia.”

“This shows that risk mitigation is indeed necessary in order to avoid those type of temperature excursions.”

 Lack of sufficient GDP cold storage hubs at airports

Gilles Jr Grégoire notes this pain point is felt across the globe. Most air hubs have the capacity to maintain 2-8°c requirements, but capabilities are limited when it comes to the 15-25 °C temperature bracket.

Slowly but surely, major air hubs are becoming more equipped to meet GDP requirements. Airports in Brussels and Frankfurt in the EU, Doha in the Middle East are a few examples. These hubs administer two key measures: they mitigate risk of temperature excursion and reload passive solutions. This enables the transport of CRT products while remaining cost effective.

Small margins

Due to consumer expectations of a low purchase price for ambient pharmaceuticals, suppliers are left with no option but to adopt an economical production strategy.

However, it is vital that the application of cost-effective supply strategies do not endanger the product's protection from temperature excursions that are detrimental to shelf life and compliance validity.

In the face of these risks, there are many benefits to transporting drugs by air. 

Products that are more temperature and time sensitive like biologic medicines are often more suited to airfreight rather than sea.

David Bang, Global Head of DHL Temperature Management Solutions clarifies that when a swift supply is needed for medicines - air-freight comes into its own.

"New products are constantly being introduced to new markets, which requires speed and flexibility based on smaller batch moves. The need for speed to the market and being able to accommodate fluctuating market demands will continue to rise no matter what."

However, many in the industry have opted for sea freight over air-freight to transport medicines as it is cheaper and involves less touch points.

The Seabury Group maintains that every year 0.5 million tonnes of pharmaceutical products are transported by air, compared to 3.5 million tonnes by sea.

Cathy Robertson notes: to address these figures, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced the CEIV Pharma Standard in 2015.  The main aim of this certification is to “improve the handling of pharma in the air cargo industry by restoring reliability and safety across the supply chain”.

She stated: “By establishing uniformed global standards, CEIV certification could solve many concerns that shippers have with temperature-controlled air cargo. While it may be too early for meaningful market data to determine its progress, it appears more and more logistics providers, airlines and airports are embracing the process.

“Perhaps as more embrace it, handling costs will decline and ultimately any cost savings achieved will be passed on to the shippers – otherwise, shippers will not be incline to shift from other modes of transportation.

CRT Inspections and audits

Audits, inspections and assessments of GDP regulations have increased in the past few years, from various health authorities across the globe, China being one prime example. This scrutiny has placed pressure on pharmaceutical companies and forced freight forwarders and transporters to invent new more suitable handling procedures for CRT products.

This pressured innovation paired with many freight forwarders reaching for the CEIV certification has brought air-freight back as a viable option to distribute CRT goods.

Over recent years, especially in Canada, Grégoire has seen a significant increase in freight forwarding companies offering a CRT door-to-door option.  Courier services in small validated trucks facilitate a compliant CRT service to remote locations.

Next week Pharma Logistics IQ takes a look at definitions for CRT and tips for how to handle these products successfully through transport.