How Airlines Ship Temperature Controlled Goods

Airlines transport a huge variety of cargo, with a wide range of requirements for its storage, handling, and safety. Cargo that requires stable and controlled temperatures can be some of the most complex. Have you ever wondered how airlines, and other supply chain partners, handle this? This article explores how such cargo is transported and the regulations that bring the industry together.

COVID-19 Vaccine cargo
Russian airline AirBridgeCargo is a major transporter of temperature-controlled goods. Photo: Getty Images

Perishable cargo

What items are we talking about when we discuss temperature-controlled goods? The wider term here is ‘perishable goods.’ This refers to cargo that will spoil if not handled correctly or may have a short shelf life. This includes items such as:

  • Fresh meat and other produce
  • Frozen food items
  • Pharmaceutical supplies
  • Flowers or other live material

All items have different requirements for handling. Controlling the temperature is common, but there may also be a need to control humidity or to ensure specific ways of handling.

Even though some of these items are of lower value, they have a high air shipment rate. Many such goods have a short shelf life. So to get them to their destination quicker, air is the best choice, especially for long distances. It is also easier to control the temperature (or other factors) on a single flight than multiple land or sea routes.

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Controlling the temperature

Onboard the aircraft, perishable goods are usually packed into a standard-sized cargo container, known as Unit Load Devices (ULD). ULDs are designed to fit into the hold and lock into place. There are several different sizes in use for different aircraft. Many are interchangeable, allowing smooth transfer between aircraft.

Standard size ULD
Standard size ULDs are used for loading onto widebody aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

Of course, when used for baggage or standard cargo, these are just filled metal containers. But for temperature-controlled goods, the same sized containers are adapted to keep the contents refrigerated or frozen. This can be done using either electrical power or dry ice.

Envirotainer is one of the largest suppliers of such containers. It offers a variety of container sizes and claims to have over 6000 containers in circulation. Standard containers have a temperature range of -20 to 20 degrees Celsius. Cooling is mostly achieved with battery supply combined with dry ice.

A standard Envirotainer temperature-controlled ULD. Photo: Envirotainer AB

Considering the whole supply chain

But keeping the goods chilled, or frozen, onboard the aircraft is only part of the challenge. Airlines and handlers of goods need to consider the whole journey, which is often more complicated and longer than just the flights. Considerations include:

  • Preparing and storing the goods before shipment
  • Transport to and from the airport
  • Storage at the airport, loading, and any potential delays
  • Customs requirements. Does the cargo need to be opened for inspection?
Container loading
Cargo waiting to be loaded –  perishables still need to be protected. Photo: Getty Images

IATA regulations

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has defined regulations for the shipment of perishable goods. These help airlines and other companies understand temperature-controlled shipping complexities and give customers confidence that regulations are followed. Crucially, it takes a full supply chain view of this, covering all parties, not just airlines.

In particular, it offers:

Perishable Cargo Regulations (PCR). These cover all perishable cargos. As well as all logistics for air shipment, the regulations cover government requirements (by country) and packing, labeling, and tracking requirements. You can view the IATA PCR regulations on its website.

Temperature Control Regulations (TCR). These extend the PCR regulations and cover specific requirements for temperature-controlled goods, including pharmaceuticals. The regulations are on its website.

Transporting pharmaceuticals

There has been a stronger focus on regulations for the pharmaceuticals sector. This can have some of the most exacting standards and complicated supply chains. It is also very valuable – according to IATA, over one trillion dollars of pharmaceutical cargo is shipped every year. And of course, there is a huge need now for the transport of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. The first six months of 2020, for example, saw a 60% increase in the demand.

COVID-19 Vaccine
Distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine will require extensive use of cold storage. Photo: Getty Images

Specifically, for this sector, IATA has launched the Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics (CEIV Pharma). This goes further than previous IATA regulations covering cold transport. Airlines and other transport providers can be certified as CEIV compliant, ensuring consistent standards across the logistics chain.

IATA describes the importance of CEIV Pharma regulations on its website:

“The business relies on air transport for its speed, consistency, and efficiency in delivering high-value, time-sensitive, temperature-controlled products. However, aviation industry stakeholders must overcome big challenges, such as insufficient expertise, inadequate infrastructure, ill-equipped facilities, and increased regulations, as they strive to provide the high-quality services pharmaceutical shippers expect.”

Would you like to share any thoughts or experiences of air cargo and logistics? Let us know in the comments.