Europe’s air cargo carriers pivotal in COVID-19 fight, says Airlines for Europe (A4E)

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  • 107,000 tonnes of PPE, including 5 billion masks, flown last year.
  • 21 A4E airlines currently involved in COVID-19 vaccine transport.
  • Air transport workers should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination.
  • Mutual recognition of security standards between Member States and other EU policies urgently needed.

Over 20 A4E airlines[1] are currently involved in the most important shipment of our generation – the COVID-19 vaccine. Europe’s air cargo carriers have proven essential in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, transporting over 107,000 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) last year — the equivalent of 1,000 fully-loaded Boeing 777 freighters. This includes more than 5 billion protective masks and other protective equipment as well as COVID-19 tests and medical supplies. At least a dozen A4E carriers have converted grounded passenger planes into cargo-only operations (so-called “preighter” aircraft) to keep up with the rising demand, thus ensuring the continuity of global value chains and the free flow of goods across borders – supporting the survival of European businesses.

The European Commission (EC) has been instrumental in supporting the sector, introducing “Green Lanes” last March to streamline cross-border cargo transport and easing administrative and logistical burdens. Specific airfreight guidelines were also introduced, urging Member States to remove night curfews and/or slot restrictions at airports with air cargo operations, thus enabling essential freight and preighter operations. Member States were also asked to exempt cargo pilots and crew from travel restrictions. Unfortunately, this has yet to be harmonised across the EU or internationally and has led to a patchwork of decision-making by Member States, inefficient operations and daily uncertainties for airlines and crews. As a result, urgently needed freighter capacity was lost due to pilots and crew needing to quarantine.

With the transport of COVID-19 vaccines a global priority, immediate policy action on a number of air cargo issues in Europe is urgently required, as outlined in A4E’s position paper Fighting the COVID-19 Pandemic and Key Policy Challenges in 2021:

  • The EU must adopt a broader definition of cargo “crew members” to include loadmasters, cargo attendants and flying mechanics. These workers should be considered essential staff, like pilots, and thereby exempted from lockdowns and quarantine restrictions throughout the European Union;
  • A4E is calling on EU leaders to give prioritisation to air transport workers for COVID- 19 vaccination as part of national vaccination plans. This includes air cargo workers involved in COVID-19 vaccine transport;
  • For the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, a common approach to secure this temperature-sensitive freight in an appropriate and quick manner must be established and implemented without further delay;
  • Member States must mutually recognise background checks conducted for airport personnel in other EU countries, thereby supporting employability across EU borders (and where it is needed most);
  • Development and harmonisation of EU-wide security standards (with national standards) and adoption of a one-size-fits-all EU requirement for security methods and technologies is needed.

Air cargo has proven invaluable in the fight against COVID-19 and has demonstrated, once again, its role as the backbone of Europe’s economy. Urgent policy measures are needed at EU level – starting with exemptions for essential cargo workers from shifting national travel restrictions. Swift adaptation of EU-wide security rules and customs modernisation is also at the top of the list”, said Thomas Reynaert, Managing Director, Airlines for Europe (A4E). “We call on Member States to prioritise aviation workers for COVID-19 vaccination, especially air cargo workers who are involved in COVID-19 vaccine transport. This would not only help the air cargo sector but Europe’s wider recovery”, Reynaert added.

[1] Twenty-one A4E airlines including Air France, Aegean Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Cargolux, Finnair, IAG Cargo (Air Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, Level and Vueling), Icelandair Cargo, KLM, Lufthansa, Lufthansa Cargo, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, Norwegian, Olympic Air, SWISS, TAP Air Portugal, TUI fly are engaged in COVID-19 vaccine transport. Crew members at Ryanair and Buzz volunteered with the Red Cross in Italy and in Hungary last year while hundreds of easyJet cabin crew signed up to be fast-tracked to support the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) with nationwide vaccinations.

Brussels, 27 Jan. 2021

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