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Cargo for a cause: The logistics of saving lives

By Hpanchal on March 28, 2012

More than two years have lapsed since a magnitude-7 earthquake rocked Haiti, but the nation is still reeling from the crisis. Thousands of miles to the east, the impoverished Horn of Africa is also in turmoil, devastated by war and famine. While these situations tend to elicit public sympathy and little more, some companies are turning that compassion into action.

Whether transporting goods to affected regions or personally visiting the nations with relief teams, airfreight has emerged as the best option in providing humanitarian relief, numerous exports say.

On a mission

Turbine Aircraft Services President Pat Cannon admits that airfreight wasn’t the only mode his company considered when it shipped humanitarian goods to Haiti on behalf of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America in late 2010. Seafreight was arguably cheaper, he  explains, but the earthquake rendered many of the Haitian seaports unusable. Air cargo proved to be the best bet. MHIA purchased space on a Miami-based freight carrier’s Boeing 767 and flew the goods — which consisted of portable light towers and gasoline generators — to nearby Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. “And from Santo Domingo, they put the equipment on trucks and shipped it back to Haiti because we were having trouble getting any kind of arrival priority at the Haitian [airports],” Cannon says.

One and a half years later, Cannon considers MHIA’s endeavor a resounding success. The generators and light towers, which helped illuminate dark areas and enabled rescue workers to locate missing citizens, are still being used in Haiti today. Company spokesman Scott Sobel also points to the utility of the light fixtures.

“If you look at the news, one of the biggest problems Haiti is facing right now is light,” he says. “Because everyone’s still living in tents, they no longer have light sources. So these generators are really important to [the people of Haiti] — even today as much as they were two years ago.”

AERObridge President Marianne Stevenson praises this and other relief missions. Stevenson, who matches aircraft with emergency response teams and humanitarian goods in times of crisis, has vast experience shipping items overseas. Key to the success of AERObridge’s missions, she says, is finding the space on donated aircraft to transport supplies.

“For us, it’s a matter of knowing where the available space is and then matching that space available to the needs that are out there,” she says.

After all, Stevenson says, “If you can move supplies, you’re going to be able to solve a lot of problems.”

Some of the donor companies AERObridge partners with collect medicine and pharmaceutical equipment; others assemble food and hygiene items. Regardless of the type of product, Stevenson says, the biggest hindrance to relief missions is the costs associated with transportation. “So we take a look at the big picture and prioritize what [goods] are coming in from our partners,” she says. AERObridge also coordinates ground transportation for the items once they leave the aircraft. Suppose, for example, that two donors are shipping pharmaceuticals to Haiti. Stevenson says that AERObridge serves as a middleman and brings the companies together so that they can minimize their trucking costs.

“And so, again, looking at a larger picture than just one donor and one location,” she says, “we help everybody maximize their resources.”

Carriers operating out of the Middle East are especially attractive to AERObridge. She says the organization is currently scouting out freight carriers that are willing to transport space-available humanitarian supplies from Dubai.

“There is a lot of connectivity between the U.S. and the first world to the Middle East and from the Middle East outward to third-world countries. The air cargo options are immense,” she says.

AERObridge is currently organizing an initiative to provide nonprofit organizations with donated space-available transportation through cargo carriers. The organization has also been coordinating aircraft space for multiple relief flights to Eastern and Western Africa, which are scheduled for the next few months.

Although Stevenson admits that the crippled economy has affected some companies’ abilities to give, she says AERObridge’s unique business model has served it well.

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