Airlines are helping aid organizations to deliver supplies to disaster zones

On 17 April, 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador killing more than 650 people, injuring over 16,000 and affecting up to 680,000, including making 5,000 homeless. The most devastating earthquake in Ecuador since 1979 flattened buildings, schools and hospitals. The Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, declared a state of emergency.

“Using passenger airlines, as long as there is no hazardous material involved, we put [the aid] in the belly [hold]. Timely small, shipments have tremendous value,” says Airlink Executive Director, Steven J. Smith. Since its creation five years ago, Airlink has served as a resource and partner to airlines as they deliver disaster relief around the world. The key role of Airlink is to serve as a conduit between airlines and the humanitarian supply chain.

Airlink has been working with Aeromexico, Avianca, Atlas Air, JetBlue, TAME and United Airlines in response to the Ecuador earthquake. “Atlas Air and United have offered regular capacity,” explains Smith. By 1 May, nearly $2 million worth of goods had already been transported, including crucial medical supplies.

Airlink has 34 partner airlines with staff from six airlines sitting on their advisory panel. They help Airlink to find critical cargo capacity which can become available for the most unlikely reasons. Mother’s day in the United States, the second Sunday in the month of May, will see a large demand for flowers. Flown from South America, this has meant that there are empty aircraft flying back down to Latin America that can carry aid.

Airlink works with more than 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the world. The aviation charity works with the likes of Save the Children, the Red Cross, AmeriCares, and other United States and European Union based NGOs.

While some of these are well-known and well-funded charities with large-scale needs, many other NGOs do not have the financial resources to make sole use of a widebody aircraft. In those cases, Airlift can act as an aid freight consolidator. Where the barrier to a charity’s effective response is not having enough money or cargo to achieve economies of scale, Smith’s team will literally pull cargo together to get it to where it all needs to be.

Airlink chooses its partners carefully. “All the NGOs are heavily vetted,” says Smith. “Getting the right cargo and people to the right place is fine, and lots of organizations want to help, but sending things that aren’t appropriate, that’s not a good thing.” In Smith’s view, disaster areas can often have small local airports with limited logistical infrastructure. The wrong supplies will only take up apron or warehouse space and, “sending the wrong things will clog up supply chain,” he adds. For Ecuador the right things are medical supplies, shelters, food and water filtration devices.

The first stage of a disaster can require people, search and rescue teams with dogs, and then the cargo delivering all the supplies.

Some of those supplies are going to be transported from warehouses stocked by the United Nations (UN), which are called Humanitarian Response Depots. There is one in Panama. Such depots are suppliers of kit to NGOs. If an NGO is responding to a disaster they can place an order with the UN.

As well as the right NGO with the right supplies, there needs to be a partner with the mobility to deliver the goods, which will otherwise block the airport. An NGO may already be working in the affected country and have the necessary connections with mobility providers.

“We have even delivered forklifts,” says Smith referencing a situation where the airport needed the equipment to offload the supplies. “We worked with a UN logistics cluster and planes were arriving and they were nervous because they only had one forklift. We sent two forklifts so they could offload the planes.”

Natural disasters will always occur and while emerging economies will improve their preparation and response as they develop, peoples around the world will still want to help through charities, as Japan’s experiences in recent years shows. That international response will always need aviation.