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The latest general information on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is available on Coronavirus.gov. For FAA-specific COVID-19 resources, please visit faa.gov/coronavirus.
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The Air Up There Podcast

Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine to its Destination

Season 2, Episode 1
Published: Friday, February 5, 2021

The COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort is a massive logistical operation possibly unlike anything the nation has seen in modern history. It's all hands on deck, and FAA continues to play an essential role. In this bonus episode, you'll hear directly from the experts managing FAA's role in facilitating the vaccine transportation operation.

The agency's adaptive response includes helping airlines understand how to safely carry larger-than-typical amounts of dry ice — a hazardous material — when needed to ensure vaccine doses stay at appropriate temperatures, prioritizing flights carrying the vaccine, and working quickly to provide guidance to pilots, air traffic controllers, and others who hold FAA medical certificates or medical clearances.

For the latest information about flying during the pandemic, visit FlyHealthy.gov.

Read the show notes on our blog.

Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine to its Destination

Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine to its Destination

Transcript

Allen Kenitzer:
Hi. I'm Allen Kenitzer, and you're listening to a bonus episode of The Air Up There, a podcast from the FAA.

Allen Kenitzer:
It seems like you can't turn on the news today without hearing about the COVID-19 vaccine efforts, and with good reason. Getting Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 is just one step in our country's strategy to stop the spread. It's all hands on deck, and the FAA has played an instrumental role in moving vaccine doses from manufacturers to distributors, a logistical operation that requires a lot of careful planning and coordination. The vaccines are precious cargo and they have to be kept at extreme low temperatures throughout their journey into people's arms.

Allen Kenitzer:
Our reporter, Dominique Gebru, sat down over Zoom with three FAA experts who are leading the agency's vaccine distribution effort. You'll hear first from Ben Supko, the Executive Director of the FAA's Office of Hazardous Materials Safety and Co-Lead of the FAA COVID-19 Vaccine Air Transport Team, Pete Basso, who leads the FAA COVID-19 Vaccine Air Transport Team along with Ben, and Dr. Susan Northrup, the Federal Air Surgeon. They'll explain why it's so challenging to transport the vaccine, hint, it involves large amounts of dry ice, how those flights affect normal air traffic operations, and how the agency expedited its timeline to evaluate the use of each vaccine to determine that pilots and air traffic controllers are safe to receive it. Oh, and you'll hear Ben say the word sublimate a couple of times in reference to dry ice going straight from a solid to a gas. Let's hear the interview.

Dominique Gebru:
I'm wondering if we could start by talking about some of the changes that the FAA had to make in order to prepare for this massive logistical operation.

Ben Supko:
Yeah, absolutely. Obviously the first part was establishing the team, which we did in October, and the team had really I'd say three distinct work groups. The first work group was really that safety issue work group, where we leveraged much of FAA's structure in terms of safety management systems and the cargo safety steering group to really drive our safety approach. There was also a piece that was related to flight prioritization, so we leveraged the IMT for that, and then operational oversight. So once the vaccines actually start moving, how are we going to oversee that? And we leveraged our inspectors for that.

Dominique Gebru:
So obviously one really important tool for keeping the vaccines cold as they're being transported is dry ice, but the FAA considers dry ice to be a hazardous material. Ben, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about first, what makes dry ice dangerous on an airplane, and what kind of limits does the FAA typically set around dry ice?

Ben Supko:
Yeah. Dry ice is certainly a hazardous material. It has a few hazardous properties. Obviously if you touch it, it'll burn your fingers, right? It also creates pressure within a packaging, so you've got to release that pressure and have that packaging designed so the pressure doesn't accumulate. And the third, probably most important thing for us in this situation is the sublimation of the dry ice. And when it sublimates, it actually forms carbon dioxide gas, and as that gas builds up in the aircraft, it poses a risk to the flight crew. It also poses a risk to ground handlers that might open that cargo compartment. So we were really focused on the volume of dry ice being transported with some of these ultra low temperature vaccines, as you said, and that's where we focused.

Dominique Gebru:
So did the FAA have to change any of its policies or guidance around dry ice? What kinds of steps did the agency take to make sure that the airlines were able to carry this cargo safely?

Ben Supko:
We didn't really have to change the policies or the regulations surrounding dry ice. We were more focused on providing guidance very specific to the scenario we were seeing. Some of the vaccine packaging leveraged technology, so it was able to reduce the sublimation rate of the dry ice, which is a good thing, but it also means the operators, they could take more on the aircraft. So we would have to look into that, right, and ensure that, "Does that packaging actually sublimate at that much lower rate?" And we did that. We did some research at the FAA Tech Center, looked at their sublimation rates, and also issued guidance that captured the findings from our research at the Tech Center, and also pointed operators in a direction where they could really use the information we'd collected through research, our knowledge of dry ice, to ensure they had safe limits set on their aircraft.

Dominique Gebru:
Ben, could you tell me a little bit more about what the FAA's effort looked like as we were testing and making sure that it was safe for carriers to have this much dry ice on board?

Ben Supko:
We started off looking at a SAFO that would address large quantities of dry ice. That SAFO is SAFO 20017, and it's titled Transportation of COVID-19 Vaccines Requiring Large Quantities of Dry Ice. And I can't do it justice, but the FAA website sure can, because it is posted there. So if you go to faa.gov/coronavirus and just click on Vaccine Transport, you can take a look at the SAFO. But as we were developing the SAFO, we thought, "Wait a minute, we need to take this one step further." And really the FAA Tech Center stepped up and said, "Hey, let's do some testing on these packages." So what they did is acquired a sample package and they conducted testing on that packaging, and they purchased the dry ice, they placed the dry ice in the box, and they ran it through their altitude simulator to consider, "What is the sublimation rate in an operational environment?" And an additional test they ran was to look at it as the ground handler would be unloading it from the cargo compartment. "What happens with the CO2 gas when you open that door, and what risks does that pose?"

Ben Supko:
They also looked at the differing sublimation rates based on the size of the dry ice pellets, because we were aware that most dry ice pellets were half inch, but it comes in various sizes. So we really wanted to understand all those varying sizes and the impacts. As a result, the testing, which is also available on the FAA website, really lays out the importance of a safety factor. Don't just rely on a packaged test that was done on the ground and didn't look at the operational environment. So we've made that information available to the operators, to the air carriers to help inform their safety risk decisions.

Dominique Gebru:
Yeah. So it sounds like the FAA really played an instrumental role in helping all of the airlines to figure this out. Speaking of airlines, obviously the industry has looked really different over the last year or so, and air travel is still down, as people are heeding the CDC's travel recommendations. But given the gravity of the public health emergency and the need for vaccines to remain cold, did the FAA need to make any adjustments from an air traffic control perspective, even though there are fewer planes in the sky?

Pete Basso:
The FAA has a longstanding traffic management program at the Command Center for the National Airspace System. Even though there are less planes in the sky, obviously these flights require priority handling, so initially the Command Center leveraged an existing flight prioritization process that they use for severe weather programs or other high priority flights. They initially established a communication channel with the carrier, so on a daily basis they identify any flights that are what we call vaccine priority flights that require special handling. So for special handling, that may involve avoiding ground delay, rerouting a faster route, ensuring that the flight departs and lands within a specific window. In particular, if the vaccine is coming from the manufacturing facility to a distribution hub. So with FedEx and UPS in particular, they have a narrow window at nighttime where they do what's called the sort, so it's key that the flights actually land at their hub facilities so they can get into the distribution sort for the next night.

Pete Basso:
In addition to that, myself and the Vaccine Priority Work Group facilitated a discussion to collaborate between the FAA, NAF Canada, and Euro Control Network Operator. Within that, we had several meetings over December and into early January, and we've facilitated a harmonized approach for the operators so that when flights are transversing the North Atlantic region in particular, if a flight was coming from Europe to the United States or the United States to Europe, that the operator would not have to deal with three sets of rules and three sets of collaborations. So it defined a process where we can facilitate flight prioritization and seamlessly pass the information across the different operators.

Dominique Gebru:
Of the vaccines that are being distributed in the country right now, none of them actually have full FDA approval, right? They're all authorized under this emergency use authorization. How does that impact pilots and air traffic controllers who have to maintain FAA medical certification?

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Well, let's talk about what our practices usually are. Typically, we do not approve a drug or a therapy until it's been fully approved by the FDA and on the market for one year. That is not what we needed to do in the midst of this public health crisis, so we decided pretty early on that we would review all the science associated with the vaccines as they came online and then make recommendations. So Pfizer's vaccine was first, and they noticed the world, the U.S., two weeks prior that they were applying for it. The FDA took two weeks to look at everything, schedule the small committee that reviews it and makes the recommendation. So that started on Wednesday of that week, and on Friday, they published the emergency use agreement.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
And over that evening, when we got all of the actual documentation associated with that, and all the science that supported the decision to approve it, we looked at what the side effect profile was, when the side effects tended to happen, how long they lasted. And from there, developed a set of guidance that says, "All right, anyone that is an Airman that holds an Airman Medical Certificate to do their job from the FAA or a medical clearance under FAA order 3930.3C to function as an air traffic controller within the FAA, needed to have a 48 hour grounding period before they could return to safety-sensitive duties."

Dr. Susan Northrup:
And that was based on the fact that if you're going to develop side effects from the Pfizer vaccine, you're going to do it within 48 hours, and most people recover within 24 hours of that. So if we don't see the side effects by the end of 48 hours, they're safe to return to work. If they get them, then we work with the individual and their aviation medical examiners to figure out when they can return to duty. One week later, the Moderna came online. We did exactly the same thing. Over Friday night, determined, "Yes, they're going to do it within 48 hours," and we applied exactly the same set of guidance for that.

Dominique Gebru:
Wow. So all of this was really … Expedited doesn't even seem to really cover it. This is super, super fast, right? I think it's really incredible how quickly you all and the rest of our colleagues who've been working on this have been able to adapt to make sure that things are staying safe and that we're keeping the traffic moving so that people can get this life-saving vaccine.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
Right. Well, and I was on a teleconference today where Marty Cetron, who is the Director of the CDC's Division of the Global Migration and Quarantine, actually called it a desperate race between the vaccine and the virus.

Dominique Gebru:
Wow.

Dr. Susan Northrup:
So we have to do what we can to support that as an agency.

Allen Kenitzer:
We heard a little bit from Pete Basso about the ways air traffic control has prioritized flights carrying the COVID-19 vaccine. But if you're listening to this podcast, chances are you won't mind hearing about that process in more detail. Let's go to our reporter, Liz Corey, for an interview with the FAA's Pat Somersall about the ins and outs of flight prioritization.

Liz Corey:
So we're placed to be able to speak today with Pat Somersall. Pat is the Acting Director of Research, Planning and Support for the Federal Aviation Administration, and I understand Pat has 31 years with the agency, but the history doesn't end there, because Pat is the son of an air traffic controller and the father of an air traffic controller, which I think is just a really neat legacy, Pat, for you and your family.

Pat Somersall:
Well, thank you. I knew what I was getting into when I became a controller.

Liz Corey:
Yeah. There's no surprises there. So Pat, a lot of people, especially when I visit with them, they think air traffic begins and ends with that tower that we see at the large airports. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about air traffic control and what you do in the system?

Pat Somersall:
Sure. Air traffic control, really it doesn't end with what you see and what some people may associate with the guy with the wands on the ramps, directing the airplane out. It's about moving the aircraft through the system safely, keeping them separated, getting them where they want to go. And there's many facets. There's the tower that controls the traffic within the airport surface, so as you're taxing down and going to the end of the runway to take off, the controllers and the pilots are talking and giving direction on how to move on the surface, so we don't end up with a traffic jam of aircraft. They don't have a reverse gear on the airplane, so if they go nose to nose on a taxiway, they have to send people out to move them out. So it's very important for the controllers to move around the surface.

Pat Somersall:
And then as you depart, the tower provided a flight path to the aircraft on which it's going to fly. Then after the aircraft departs, they hand off to an approach control. That approach control controller has aircraft on a radar and is separating them from other aircraft around that metropolitan area, that area within about a 40-mile radius of the airport. As you're climbing up on your flight, then, you hand off to the in-route controllers, and the entire United States is covered and controlled by air traffic controllers.

Liz Corey:
So in the midst of all this, I know every flight is very important. I could be going on my vacation. I could be waiting for my package for Christmas. We have all sorts of VIP flights, but in the middle of all this, in our national emergency, now we have COVID, and the operations that you did in flying PPE or personal protective equipment, doctors, the vaccine, I mean, that's a tremendous coordinating effort. How on earth did you do that and put that into this mix? How did you make it all work?

Pat Somersall:
We have had some practice. You take natural disasters, I'll use some of the natural disasters we're familiar with. The earthquake that happened in Puerto Rico. Think about Katrina, the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast. We had to prioritize flights in those types of environments to bring in those relief and take out people that needed to be evacuated. So we worked very closely with the military, and with Coast Guard, and with Search and Rescue, as well as with the air carriers, to define how much we can handle in there, set up with the states. "What can we do? How many flights can we take in? And what's your priority?" We team up with FEMA, and FEMA provides that prioritization. "Hey, this flight, this one's carrying a lot of important medical things. It needs to have higher priority than maybe a flight that's bringing in some personnel to relieve some other ones because of the critical nature of those materials."

Pat Somersall:
And then as we came to the vaccine flights, especially this late fall, when we got around Thanksgiving time, and those first flights were coming in, we worked with the airlines and the warp speed folks leading the whole vaccine and all that effort to identify those flights so that we could prioritize them, know where they're coming in, coordinate, and make sure everybody was aware when they were coming. We tracked them all the way from when they left Europe until they got into Chicago, and now with the way the distribution is going, if we have a constraint in the system like a snow storm or some other event that's reducing that capacity, we can communicate those critical flights to the controllers and they know, "Give them the priority. You may have to hold somebody else out to get that particular flight in without any undue delay."

Allen Kenitzer:
As the nation approaches one year of COVID-19 safety restrictions, the vaccine seems like a beacon of hope for many. The FAA will continue playing its role to help get the vaccines to their destinations as quickly and safely as possible. For the latest updates on the U.S. government's COVID-19 response, visit flyhealthy.gov. The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you liked this episode, please be sure to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media too. We're at FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and at FAA news on Twitter and YouTube. Thanks for listening.