This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
While Pfizer’s corporate flight department suffered a drop-off in flights during the pandemic, it was able to demonstrate the critical role it plays in the company and has been credited with helping to reduce by two weeks the time it took to bring the Pfizer vaccine to market, said v-p of corporate aviation John Witzig. Participating in the Flight Safety Foundation/NBAA Business Aviation Safety Seminar's opening general session on Tuesday, Witzig detailed how the pandemic had shuttered his operations and the steps his department took not only to get up and running but to step up as the company was conducting trials for its Covid-19 vaccine.
"As slow as our flying was for last year, the reality is that the value the flight department generated for the business probably exceeded the value of every trip we’ve ever done,” he said. When the pandemic first set in, Witzig said the reaction was that they were going to be down just a short while. But as time went on, the concern became about maintaining proficiency and currency.
Once health and safety protocols had been put in place, Witzig contemplated currency flights that were “just burning holes” in the sky without ostensibly demonstrating a financial benefit to the company. Recognizing that Pfizer had always supported the charitable organization Corporate Angel Network (CAN), which arranges transportation for cancer patients, he said he asked his CEO whether such flights could also be used for those missions.
Company executives gave their approval and over the next couple of months “we flew a couple of dozen trips,” Witzig said. Rather than waiting for requests from CAN, his department went to the organization asking for trips.
But also importantly, the flight department recognized that while Pfizer is a well-established manufacturing and logistics company, it faced travel complications stemming from ongoing restrictions and reduced airline flights. This provided an opportunity to showcase to executives that “you’ve got a secret weapon” with an in-house aviation department.
The flight department developed a hazmat team and worked with health and safety experts and its own logistics teams to explore the role it could play in helping forward its mission and carrying equipment and vaccines.
“It was a lot more complicated than we thought,” Witzig conceded, but the department was able to work through issues to conduct “dozens and dozens” of trips carrying small loads of trial product and lab technicians while testing was ongoing. Those trips have continued.
While stressing that he believes the flight department played a small role in the effort to make a vaccine available, Witzig said, “We were credited specifically with reducing our time to submission for the emergency-use authorization by at least two weeks. There’s no doubt how valuable that was to our business.”