Wow: Alaska Airlines Carries 5,000 Corneas A Year For Transplants

**UPDATE: 09/05/2020 @ 10:25 UTC – Alaska Airlines has provided comments regarding its process for shipping corneas. Read below. **

We might all be used to hearing stories about critical medical shipments from commercial airlines. However, did you know that Alaska Airlines is involved in delivering corneas to eye banks across the United States? This time-sensitive cargo is slightly different from its regular consignment, but it’s perhaps one of the most important.

Alaska Airliens in flight
Alaska Airlines delivers 5,000 corneas each year. Photo: Getty Images

Corneas as Alaska Airlines cargo

Earlier this week, Alaska Airlines shared an emotive story about its philanthropic work across the US. On Thursday, it told followers on its blog that it has been involved in the transportation of corneas across the US, and sometimes internationally, in partnership with a charity combating blindness.

The cargo branch of Alaska Airlines is responsible for delivering around 5,000 corneas a year in line with SightLife. It receives the corneas from recently deceased donors who were happy for this vital tissue to be put to medical use.

Using its GoldStreak Package Express service, Alaska Airlines can ship these resources overnight to reach labs and eye banks in the US, as well as further afield. The tissue is used for those awaiting corneal transplants. According to the University of Iowa, over 44,000 corneal transplants are completed in the US each year. It’s one of the most frequent transplant surgeries.

Baggage loading in Alaska Airlines
Corneas are a different kind of cargo to Alaska’s normal. Photo: Alaska Airlines

How do you transport a cornea?

We contacted Alaska Airlines to find out exactly how it transports its corneas. It told us,

“Most organs or eye tissue shipments are pre-booked through the Cargo Call Center where they will create a booking for a specific flight and will provide the shipper with a tracking number. The shipper will then take the shipment to the Alaska Cargo Warehouse where the shipment is accepted, manifested, and delivered to the outbound aircraft.

“Cargo Network Support (CNS) tracks all human organ shipments throughout the system from acceptance to delivery. After the shipment has been manifested at the warehouse, CNS will monitor the outbound flight for any delays. We will work with the station and the shipper if the flight has a major delay greater than an hour. If the shipment swaps to another flight, CNS will call the shipper and the consignee and advise of the new departure or arrival information.

“Once the shipment arrives at the final destination, CNS will monitor the acceptance of the shipment at the transfer or final destination. If the item has not arrived within an hour of landing, CNS will notify the station to check carts, staging area or the aircraft.”

Alaska Airlines uses its GoldStreak service because it realizes the importance of timely deliveries. The overnight courier means there is minimal time wasted during the donation. Alaska Airlines also shared that employees take on the responsibility for the safe delivery of corneas.

In a press release on its website, the Regional Cargo Sales Manager at Alaska Airlines Ravelle Snyder said,

“We’re literally carrying the gift of sight. Our employees often hand-carry these GoldStreak packages to the aircraft, taking personal responsibility to ensure that the tissue is safe at all times during transit.”

Alaska Airlines staff
Alaska Airlines cargo staff are a vital cog in the process of delivery. Photo: Alaska Airlines

The nature of Alaska Airlines’ cargo means its process could be slightly different from other organ donations that happen within hospitals. In some cases, airlines have had to transport organs in time-sensitive conditions ready for surgeons in the operating theatre.

What other airlines transport live tissue like Alaska Airlines?

Alaska Airlines’ story resonates on a personal level. One of its own employees had to undergo three separate corneal transplants in the past 20 years. It knows that its work is vital for saving lives within the community. That said, other airlines without a personal tie have previously donated live tissue.

In the past, Southwest Airlines transported organs for medical use. Unfortunately, it has been remembered for a mishap in 2018 where a heart was not taken off the plane before the aircraft left for its final destination. En route to Dallas from Sacramento, Southwest made a stop off in Seattle to deliver the precious cargo. Only, it was never unloaded.

Southwest in flight
In 2018, Southwest was involved in the delivery of a heart for transplant. Photo: Getty Images

The problem with commercial airlines is that adding on special medical deliveries can get complicated and requires a bit of planning. Thankfully, Alaska Airlines seems to have its cornea transport down to a tee.

What do you make of this story? Should more airlines fly organs? Do you know of another carrier that has transported vital live tissue? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.