Rome-based U.N. World Food Programme, which manages the United Nations Humanitarian Air Services (UNHAS), is historically busy arranging airlifts to deliver desperately needed food, medicine and equipment to often remote regions of the world when natural disaster or political strife occur. In many cases, the agency is tasked with delivering food to regions that were fragile even before natural calamities struck.
The WFP experienced a busy 2012, and 2013 is shaping up to be equally challenging.
The WFP/UNHAS provides humanitarian air service in 13 countries, working with relief agencies and the U.S. In many cases, this involves flying into regions not served by passenger airlines and lacking passenger and cargo-handling infrastructure.
Oleh Maslyukov heads the air-transport unit for the WFP and is in charge of planning the airlifts. He says one of the more challenging recent airlifts involved flights to provide assistance in the Philippines following a typhoon last December. The WFP chartered four flights from Kuala Lumpur to Davao, where the airport doesn’t have cargo equipment to serve big freighters.
“So we were limited to smaller freighters such as 727s and 737s, and we were able to bring in 65 tonnes on four flights,” Maslyukov says.
Last year’s efforts included low-altitude food drops in south Sudan.
“It’s a last resort method of food delivery,” Maslyukov says. “We used two cargo aircraft for gravity drops in an area completely cut off from roads. There was no infrastructure.”
Challenges of organizing such critical airlifts are primarily time-related and often involve working around underdeveloped or damaged local infrastructure.
“We have to deliver this cargo to the affected area as quickly as possible,” Maslyukov says. “We often face limitations when the local service providers lack appropriate equipment. The number of airlifts we do each year depends on the situation. The causes can be weather phenomena like typhoons, or we can be moving refugees for political reasons. The number goes up and down each year depending on global situations.”
Arranging to have the right people at the right place is paramount to a successful airlift. This involves working with an ever-growing list of accredited service providers and air brokers.
“It’s important to have professional people who know what to do,” Maslyukov says. “You may have experienced pilots, but you also need to have a correct list of service providers. It’s important to rely on these people. They can be global or regional service providers for cargo handling and fuel. They all contribute to a successful airlift.”
WFP Aviation’s ongoing efforts also provide crucial cargo bound for the vulnerable Syrian population on behalf of the humanitarian community. The WFP is scaling up its food aid operations in the region to assist a growing number of people. Due to the situation in Syria, food and other cargo is being pre-positioned in neighboring Turkey and nearby Oman. Other potential relief operations this year may include food delivery to West African nations, including war-torn Mali.
One company with a long history in humanitarian logistics is UPS, which works with several relief agency partners. The majority of UPS’s 2012 humanitarian airlift efforts focused on the Sahel region of Africa which stretches across the middle of the continent and includes parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea.
“One of our efforts involved sponsoring charter flights in response to the severe drought that affected more than 11 million civilians in the Sahel region,” says Esther Ndichu, humanitarian supply chain director at UPS. “ n April 2012, Dan Brutto, the president of UPS International, committed two charters to support organizations responding to the drought. To aid in this effort, UPS partnered with InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to identify organizations that were active in the region and to consolidate freight from multiple organizations.”
Ndichu says UPS worked with several relief organizations such as UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, CARE and others. UPS operated a total of three charters from Europe to Mauritania and Mali and was able to ship more than 577,000 pounds of relief items.
UPS worked with the World Food Programme in December 2012 to transport 225,000 pounds of high-energy biscuits from Dubai to Uganda to support its Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) programs. Ndichu says this particular delivery arrived in time to support civilians in the Eastern region of the DRC who were affected by the invasion of rebel forces.
Organizing a humanitarian airlift requires keeping track of many moving parts, Ndichu says. This often requires dealing with different languages and workweek schedules of the involved countries.
“For example, when we provided relief efforts to Mauritania, one of the charters was going to fly on a Sunday morning, so we had to make sure all official government documents and approvals were received by Thursday because they observe their weekend from Friday to Sunday,” Ndichu recalls. “When operating under a tight window, that one work day makes a big difference.”
Ndichu says when operating relief charters, UPS works with local airport authorities to receive waivers on certain airport fees and typically requires them to expedite the landing permit process. She says some countries cooperate readily, but others involve multiple parties, which can complicate the process. UPS works closely with its agents on the ground, and relief agencies often have a relationship with authorities that may expedite the process.
“At UPS, we have multiple groups involved in an airlift effort and they range from the UPS Airline, operations teams in multiple countries, and agents to the crew and customers. Constant communication is key and in UPS cases, we have the commitment from the leadership to the operations teams to ensure we are serving the people in need,” Ndichu says.
Volga-Dnepr has been active in humanitarian airlifts since 2002, having flown more than 400 missions around the globe supporting disaster relief efforts. These have included airlifts to Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami, relief efforts related to Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. and the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.
Konstantin Vekshin, North America vice president of sales and marketing, says a successful airlift boils down to accurate planning.
“The important thing is to plan everything in such a way that it does not create any additional congestion. We want to be able to operate the airplane in such a way that we have minimal time on the ground and also have the necessary means of offloading. We have accumulated a lot of expertise in flying this type of cargo in these specific situations.”
Vekshin says Volga-Dnepr tries to use planes that are geographically closest to the disaster site, but may consider pre-positioning some planes in regions that are historically prone to natural disasters.
“We have been thinking about some pro-active approaches such as keeping an airplane or two in areas like Southeast Asia,” Vekshin says. “We’ve been thinking about a specific airfield there so we can respond to specific needs in the area. This would be a joint coordinated effort with international agencies that we are thinking about approaching.”
Vekshin says under such a plan, key equipment such as power generators would also be pre-deployed. He says this would save a lot of time and allow everyone involved to react quicker.
The New York office of U.K.-based Air Charter Service was among those involved in arranging flights to assist states affected by Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Northeastern U.S. last October. Richard Thompson, cargo sales director, says Air Charter arranged for three flights.
The first was a freighter containing food ration packs, which flew from Sacramento into Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., about 60 miles north of Midtown Manhattan. Stewart was one of the few airports open and able to handle cargo in the region. Two subsequent flights involved shipments of power transformers from Houston to JFK International Airport. Air Charter arranged for the use of 77-200 freighters operated by Axis Air.
“The charter market is very ad hoc,” Thompson says. “Organizations are arranging these flights not because they want to, but because they have to.”
Thompson says Air Charter is usually getting pricing from airlines within 30 minutes of being contacted.
During the past year or so, Air Partner has arranged humanitarian flights that have flown medicine into war-torn Libya, emergency aid to Syria and managed famine aid in the Horn of Africa. The regularity of these efforts may make it seem routine, but a lot of planning and expertise goes into arranging these crucial flights.
Air Partner works with more than 500 aircraft operators out of its head office at London Gatwick and other offices around the globe.
“Where we add value is our in-depth knowledge of the market and knowledge of what aircraft are available and when,” says Clive Chalmers, manager of U.K. freight for Air Partner.
“You have to be aware of the tricks of the trade and know which aircraft are available where,” Chalmers says. “Relationships are key in this business, especially operator relationships. If you ring up an airline at midnight for an urgent humanitarian flight, you want to know they are going to react.”
Flights often launch within 24 hours, sometimes within 12. It depends largely on how quickly over-flight and landing permits can be arranged.
“You may have a lot of people in a small airport that you need to get out as quickly as possible,” Chalmers says. “You want to have the right number of aircraft. That’s the main challenge and where we work closely with our clients, giving them a range of aircrafts that are more suited. It’s a challenge, but we have specialized in this business for 50 years, and we are used to handling large-scale evacuations.
Chalmers, who has been overseeing humanitarian charter flights for three years, says it’s a rewarding endeavor to help governments and relief agencies.
“When you see on the news that there has been an earthquake, you think how lucky you are and the next thought is how are we going to help these people,” Chalmers says. “We want to get aircraft in the air as quickly as possible. Every hour and every minute counts. It really does.”
Chapman Freeborn Airchartering recently worked with the St. Anthony Health Foundation and Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) to organize the air transportation of surplus medical supplies from the U.S. to Vietnam. The mission was organized out of the company’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office.
More than 50 tons of medical equipment, including hospital beds and surgical tools, were trucked from Denver to Chicago and then flown more than 8,000 miles from O’Hare International Airport to Hanoi on a Boeing 747-400F aircraft.
Chapman Freeborn, an aircraft charter specialist with a long history of humanitarian airlift operations, provided full support for the charter including securing the aircraft and assisting with the airport handling and cargo loading/unloading arrangements in both Chicago and Hanoi.
The airlift project followed the closure of St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver last year and its replacement by a new medical facility built nearby – with surplus medical equipment from the old facilities donated to the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi.
The fundraising effort was led by Carl Bartecchi, a Colorado physician who advocates the adoption of modern medical practices in Vietnam and supports the training program in academic medicine for Vietnamese physicians and nurses at Bach Mai.
David Livingstone, a Chapman Freeborn cargo charger specialist, says challenges of the airlift included time constraints and availability of the cargo, which was scattered all over the closed hospital.