Delivering sight to the blind

Extreme Logistics
Delivering sight to the blind

When the goods being transported are human tissue, speed and reliability aren't just a competitive advantage — they're an absolute necessity. That's a challenge John S. Connor Inc. (www.jsconnor.com) has tackled for the past seven years, when it began offering third-party logistics (3PL) services to Tissue Banks International (TBI) (www.tbionline.org), a non-profit network of eye and tissue banks that provides corneas and other eye tissue for sight-restoring transplant surgery.

“We estimate that, since we started handling business for TBI, around 10,000 corneas have been shipped to help people regain their sight,” says Dale Harrison, manager of operations at Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) for John S. Connor.

Lee Connor, president of the company, notes that, “Airfreight is always time-sensitive, but airfreight of perishable human tissue makes the time element that much more significant.”

The TBI network has 33 locations in the U.S., many of which recover tissues for a variety of applications in addition to corneas. Most shipment-handling John S. Connor performs for TBI is international — moving through BWI or Washington's Dulles International Airport — and originating with the Baltimore facility. Most of the shipments are destined for Western Europe or the Middle East.

Harrison explains that TBI has its own system of notification of tissue availability, through hospitals or other donor sources. TBI then picks up the cornea or other tissue and takes it to its facility for preparation and packaging. Once the shipment is ready, TBI sends John S. Connor an e-mail indicating the cornea's destination and when it should be shipped.

John S. Connor then prepares necessary documents — including the air bill and routing.

TBI delivers the package to the 3PL's office, where it is matched with the correct documentation and delivered to the airport. If time is pressing, TBI will take the shipment directly to the airport, where John S. Connor will meet them with the documents in time for the flight.

Since corneas can't be on any kind of dry surface, they are packed on wet ice, creating a limited timeframe for delivery. “One of our main roles is in routing,” says Lee Connor. “When TBI says they have need for tissue in Saudi Arabia, for instance, we have to drop everything and make sure we have the proper routing to meet their time-sensitive requirements. Time is especially critical with the wet ice. Dry ice can last a while, but wet ice lasts only 24 hours.”

With the cargo sensitivity and importance, packages usually won't ride with general freight but rather in the cabin, cockpit or special storage areas of an airplane. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the shipment, receivers are able to make arrangements for expedited clearance on arrival. Airlines are on alert and their personnel know to whom to hand packages on arrival.

“Although we have the web capability for track and trace,” says Lee Connor, “these shipments are so sensitive, we proactively keep TBI up on status through calls to their offices, all the way through confirmation of arrival.”

Harrison notes that John S. Connor is proactive in its tracking efforts. “If something is going to be delayed or the airline delays the shipment,” he says, “we determine, with input from TBI, if the package should continue based on when it would arrive — if it would still be a useable shipment.”

There is satisfaction for all involved in moving these critical shipments to those in need. “In the cargo business,” notes Lee Connor, “sometimes the forwarder is like an umpire in a baseball game. They're never noticed until there's a problem or a mistake, and then the whole world is all over them. It's nice when our efforts are appreciated and we are able to perform a relatively small but critical role in getting someone's sight to them.”

— Roger Morton

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December, 2003

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