Pharmaceutical products are at their most useful when they can be delivered to the people who need them most in a quick and orderly fashion. In many cases, the necessary drugs are fragile and have to be stored at specific temperatures, which makes their transportation difficult. A carrier and cargo facilities are needed that not only know these requirements, but are also capable of moving pharma packages with the patience and care that they deserve.

As head of cargo at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, these are conditions that Jonas van Stekelenburg knows all too well. In 2016, the airport – which is the third largest in Europe – had more than 1.6 million tonnes of cargo pass through its gates, of which 5% were for pharmaceutical packages. "These shipments are done by almost every carrier and by all of the handlers," says van Stekelenburg.

Over the past year and a half, each handling firm has made an outsize effort to showcase their expertise in the transportation of pharmaceutical cargo by joining the Pharma Gateway Amsterdam (PGA) initiative; as a partnership between Air Cargo Netherlands, Schiphol Cargo, and 18 logistics companies, PGA has increased transparency throughout the supply chain and supported all of its members in their aspirations to acquire the International Air Transport Association's (IATA) certification in becoming a Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics.

"It was because of this quality training and IATA certification that all of the parties have really improved their procedures and achieved a better quality of transportation," says van Stekelenburg.

Hub aspirations

By providing a support network for obtaining the IATA certification, Schiphol has now built a complete CEIV-certified supply chain. "If you ship your pharmaceuticals into or out of Europe, you want to have as few handovers as possible," explains van Stekelenburg. "If you are a serious pharma company or manufacturer, you'll most likely want to choose Schiphol."

In March 2017, the airport invested in the development of an early warning system that is available to pharmaceutical shippers. By using donations from the Dutch Institute for Advanced Logistics and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the new programme will allow individual shipments to be monitored for anomalies, including spikes in temperature. This results in the seamless conveyance of pharmaceutical goods for the airport, which lies at the heart of an interconnected road and rail network.

"What makes Schiphol unique is its network," says van Stekelenburg, citing the 29 carriers and dedicated cargo shipment firms that operate out of the airport. "It is here that pharma companies will experience fewer handovers and the highest-quality cargo operations."

Schiphol also has the added bonus of retaining the services of Dutch customs officials. "They are very cooperative," adds van Stekelenburg. "Officials always keep in mind that, yes, they have their targets for spotting counterfeit goods and enforcing rules on duty, but they also want to contribute to the seamless import and export of goods through the airport. Customs always focus on the goal of supporting and facilitating the business, and that's very important."

It is this focus that has not only made Schiphol a friendly hub, but also one where the transportation of pharmaceutical goods can be achieved with the greatest expedience. These qualities are essential as the market for pharmaceutical goods is emphasising the importance of quality and efficiency in the supply chain.

"Everybody, from the US to East Asia, is working on improving quality and creating value for their customers," states van Stekelenburg. "In the end, everybody wants customers to pay for this value and for it to really make a difference in their decision. In that sense, opting to ship your pharmaceutical products via Schiphol is a no-brainer. By doing so, you will be choosing the option with the least disturbance to your supply chain."