Collaborating for Control

To support carefully chosen packaging systems, pharma shippers are advised to collaborate with freight forwarders and carriers to maintain handling consistency.

Handling temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals can be a risky business. The supply chain can be hazardous, subjecting life-saving therapies to potentially damaging extremes.

While choosing the right packaging technology is critical for success, whether shipping using active or passive solutions, so is maintaining consistency in product handling along the supply chain, reports American Airlines Cargo’s Tom Grubb. And communicating the processes needed to maintain that consistency is also key. Grubb manages AA Cargo’s cold-chain strategy and time- and temperature-sensitive cargo services. The company offers a range of services supporting both active and passive control under its ExpediteTC program.

“While packaging is validated to maintain temperatures for specific time ranges, maintaining quality throughout the process itself is critical,” he says. “The process has to work in conjunction with the packaging and help it do its job.”

Grubb says that when AA Cargo set out to develop standard operating procedures for handling temperature-sensitive products, its “goal was to address many concerns about the air carrier logistics chain.

“Airports, particularly in the summer, are not friendly to the cold chain,” he furthers. “In most cases, the airport environment is the harshest. The hot tarmac in Dallas in August, for instance, can cut the length of passive package protection time or diminish the effectiveness of active container cooling. So we have to control as best as we can the temperature extremes to which the shipments are exposed.”

Logically, this entails keeping shipments from getting hot while on the tarmac, Grubb says. “The key piece is to minimize time spent on the ramp. In addition to significant monitoring of these delicate shipments while in our possession, processes require an expedited pull for these products and keeping them in the warehouse as long as possible. They are the last items to get on the plane, and then we recover them as quickly as possible once the flight arrives at its destination.”

AA Cargo stores passive-control shipments in its controlled room temperature (CRT) “cool rooms,” which are maintained at 15–25°C, in Chicago, Dallas, New York City (JFK), Miami, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Advanced monitoring systems are in place to provide alerts, and a high-visibility Web-based monitoring tool tracks and records chain of custody, Grubb explains.

But while training worldwide employees to follow specific temperature-control SOPs is a central part of AA Cargo’s program, the airline also extends training to contractors and partners. “Contract handlers have to complete the exact same training as well as follow our SOPs,” says Grubb. “And our partners must prove they can handle ExpediteTC products. Only where we have this level of commitment do we feel assured.”

AA Cargo has been pretty conservative when selecting partners. “We err on the side of caution, because we are moving such sensitive materials,” he adds. Partners include Japan Airlines to 11 Pacific destinations via Tokyo’s Narita airport; FedEx, which links AA’s network via Miami from San Juan, Puerto Rico; and service to Dubai on Emirates via London. And, “if we find other offline points that customers require, we may expand partnerships, but we are very cautious,” says Grubb.

Emerging markets are also be a challenge for the pharmaceutical industry, says Grubb, and AA Cargo’s
ExpediteTC provides services to Brazil, as an example. But Grubb notes that the difficulties extend beyond air transport.

“Emerging markets like Brazil continue to develop their infrastructure. Some locations distant from the airports can see extended transit times,” he says. “Commonly used package systems can be designed to protect for 72, 96, even 120 hours. It may take us a day to reach such markets through air transport, but what about truck transport times beyond the gateway airport?”

Communication about handling procedures among all supply-chain partners should be ongoing. “Shippers need to understand their product’s protection within the supply chain and communicate requirements with all forwarders and carriers. With temperature-sensitive commodities, all parties must understand. Collaboration is key,” he says.  

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