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Germany's Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, left, looks to packages with face masks in front of the world's largest operational cargo plane, which brings more than eight million protective face masks from China, as a Bundeswehr transport to the Leipzig/Halle airport in Leipzig, Germany, on April 27, 2020.Jens Meyer/The Associated Press

The cargo specialists arranging a massive shipment of personal protective equipment from China for the Quebec government have turned to the world’s biggest aircraft to carry the load.

The Soviet-era Antonov AN-225 is scheduled to carry what will be the largest single delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to Canada later this week to Montreal’s Mirabel Airport. The most recent flight plan calls for the huge aircraft to land on Thursday night.

Much of the freight is expected to be medical gowns that be can be used by health care workers.

Quebec’s gear is taking a different route from some other shipments chartered by the federal government and provinces. The plane will pick up the PPE in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin rather than Shanghai. The Tianjin airport is the only one where the AN-225, which weighs more than 285 tonnes and has a wingspan of more than 88 metres, is allowed to land in China.

The AN-225 is a one-of-a-kind plane. The world’s largest operational cargo aircraft, it’s owned by Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines and modeled on an aircraft that carried the Soviet/Russian space shuttle Buran.

PPE tends to be light but bulky, and the Antonov can carry 1,100 cubic metres, several times what conventional aircraft can accommodate.

The Quebec government on Monday declined to comment on this airlift, saying it did not make the logistics decisions.

Montreal-based Nolinor Aviation is the company Quebec contracted to ship the PPE. Nolinor in turn contracted with Toronto-based Momentum Solutions, a logistics and air charter provider, which secured the AN-225.

Vincent Dufort, sales director for Nolinor, said it’s very challenging to find reliable transport from China these days, and his company contracted with Momentum Solutions because they have worked together in the past and trust them.

Stephen Arbib, chief executive officer of Momentum Solutions, said using the massive AN-225 helps reduce the cost of each unit of shipping medical gear to half or less than half of what it might cost to ship by conventional aircraft because it can carry more.

Mr. Arbib said using a Ukrainian-flagged aircraft is helpful when shipping out of China because friction between Canada and China can cause difficulty for Canadian aircraft operators. “Unfortunately, with the political climate between Canada and China, being a Canadian operator isn’t always the most accepted operator.”

Momentum Solutions played a key role in bringing Canadians home from Wuhan, China, earlier this year, and has worked for the United Nations, other non-governmental organizations and foreign governments.

Antonov Airlines has used the AN-225 to deliver PPE to Poland and Germany and France.

In China, crushing demand for masks and other protective equipment has created delays and stressed the logistics system. Shanghai Pudong International Airport has become a key centre for dispatching supplies from factories to other countries. Already the world’s third-busiest cargo hub, it has been stretched in ways never before seen. The number of cargo flights is more than double last year’s, including 329 flights on April 17, the highest daily tally in airport history.

China late last week tightened restrictions on exports of masks and other PPE, requiring shipments to be subjected to a mandatory customs inspection.

The regulations follow highly publicized complaints from some foreign governments and hospitals that they received PPE from China that they considered faulty. The Canadian government reported last week that one million N95-type masks it purchased from China were substandard.

With a report from Reuters

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