Face masks for German hospitals get police escort

A Lufthansa passenger plane is loaded with cargo from the side door.

Face masks and other personal protective equipment are worth their weight in gold these days, and German authorities are protecting shipments accordingly. 

Lufthansa Airlines (FWB: LHA) on Monday opened a new air pipeline to funnel personal protective equipment for medical workers from Shenzhen, China, to Frankfurt International Airport, where the gear is met by a police escort to make sure it is secure during transit to a central warehouse.

Lufthansa’s cargo division is now offering 14 additional cargo flights per week on the route using passenger Airbus A330-300 aircraft, which are supplementing the carrier’s 17 pure freighters operating around the world. The first flight carried about 3 million respirator masks and other hospital garments.

The flights support the Federal Ministry of Health’s large purchase of tens of millions of masks, with end-to-end transportation and distribution managed by Greven, Germany-based Fiege. The German government, in contrast to the United States, is centralizing the acquisition of essential medical supplies, including protective gowns, gloves, full-body suits and disinfectants, for its health care system.

Fiege is responsible for coordinating express deliveries from several suppliers and manufacturers in China to airports such as Shenzhen and Shanghai Pudong, overseeing customs clearance and ensuring ground agents load the cargo on Lufthansa aircraft. Before shipments depart, technical inspectors for TÜV Nord verify the quality of the products.

As previously reported, international complaints about substandard and mislabeled medical supplies prompted the Chinese government to implement a strict export control regime that has greatly contributed to huge cargo backlogs at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, and other airports to a lesser degree. 

Fiege says it transports the hospital garments with a police escort to a distribution center, where the supplies are separated into discrete shipments overnight under strict safety and hygiene standards for delivery the next morning to hospitals, nursing homes and doctors’ offices designated by the Health Ministry. The entire process takes two days.

The new Lufthansa flight connection was set up with Shenzhen airport and Chinese authorities in 14 days, according to Lufthansa Cargo.

Lufthansa operates 16 flights per week to and from China with Boeing 777 dedicated freighters. With the newly opened Shenzhen lane, an additional 49 weekly flights are available with passenger aircraft in cargo-only mode. Lufthansa is putting cargo in the cabin to increase transport efficiency and has removed seats from 10 A330-300 aircraft to make room for more cargo volume on the upper deck. The average capacity of these quasi-freighters is about 30 tons, compared to 103 tons for the full-size 777 freighters.

Another four Airbus A350 planes have been modified to carry cargo in the passenger seats.

Demand for personal protective equipment is so great that states and hospitals report having to pay exorbitant prices to secure orders. Criminals are trying to get in on the action, too, which is why German authorities are making extra effort to protect their purchase. The BBC recently reported that a large number of N95 respirators for the U.K.’s National Health Service were stolen from a warehouse by thieves who cut through steel shutters to avoid triggering security alarms. In Oregon, thousands of face masks intended for hospital workers were stolen and sold on Craigslist.