In 2021, 235 million people are likely to need humanitarian assistance and protection. The number has risen to 1-in-33 people worldwide, an increase from 1-45, according to Global Humanitarian Overview, a report published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

UN and partner-organisations aim to assist 160 million people most in need across 56 countries, which will require $35 billion, the report said.

The key reasons for increasing humanitarian aid include:

Increasing disease outbreaks, and the Coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global recession

Political conflicts taking heavy toll on civilians; and

Severe and frequent weather events and natural disasters are pushing vulnerabilities.

Health-related goods were the top aid items in 2021 (till now) with face masks (5.8 million units), gloves (752,000 units) and water purification units (474,000), according to data from the International Humanitarian Aid.

Africa accounted for the maximum aid ($46 million), followed by Asia ($45 million) and Americas ($4 million) till date in 2021, data show.

"Looking into the global values (approximately $100 million dispatched since January 2021), nearly 50 percent of all efforts done by Dubai International Humanitarian City (IHC) community ($49 million) reached African countries," said Giuseppe Saba, CEO, IHC. "Since January, more than 900 dispatches have been performed and almost 600 had African countries as final destinations. Air cargo is the privileged one in emergency response for several reasons. The urgency of reaching the beneficiaries or port congestions, such as recently registered in some countries (e.g. Sudan) indicates preference for air transport."

Giuseppe Saba, CEO, IHC

“During the current pandemic, our teams on the ground, in tandem with our partners, worked to assess our support to the region, which saw us providing additional charter flights and adjusting our schedules to support demand,” said Martin Drew, Senior Vice President Sales and Cargo, Etihad Aviation Group. “We have recently signed an SLA agreement with Astral Aviation and Kenya Airways to extend our network across the continent to include 27 offline stations and four online stations that will support our ambitions to provide additional support for aid and essential shipments.

Martin Drew, Senior Vice President Sales and Cargo, Etihad Aviation Group

“The agreement not only allows us to share our knowledge and experience with our partners but utilises their on-ground operations in destinations we do not operate, providing additional support and instilling further consistency and efficiency, especially with pharmaceutical logistics for the shipment of vaccines.”

Emirates SkyCargo is committed to supporting global communities, said Dennis Lister, vice president, cargo commercial development, Emirates. “We have worked with international agencies and NGOs involved in delivering humanitarian assistance including International Humanitarian City in Dubai, the world’s largest hub for humanitarian aid. When working in a natural disaster or a crisis, Emirates has often been one of the first airlines to respond and mobilise a freighter aircraft. Thanks to its geographical position, with one third of global population reachable within a four hour flight radius and two thirds of global population reachable within eight hours, our hub in Dubai is well placed to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Dennis Lister, vice president, cargo commercial development, Emirates

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued to actively support international NGOs in delivering both COVID-19 and non COVID-19 related relief materials across the world. We also put in place the Emirates India humanitarian airbridge by donating air cargo capacity to transport essential supplies such as relief tents and thousands of oxygen cylinders and concentrators free of charge on flights to Indian destinations.

“Earlier in 2020, Emirates also provided critical emergency relief and aid to the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the Port of Beirut blasts in Lebanon. “

Natural calamities & African crises
Natural calamities also attract a lot of attention and immediacy for solution. For example, Air Charter Service (ACS) was recently asked to fly 80 firefighters and 150 tonnes of equipment to Greece where they were needed to contain wildfires. “Our experienced team sourced a Boeing B767 that had the capacity to carry both the passengers and their heavy cargo,” ACS said in its blog. “We also managed to secure enough cargo handlers at short notice despite encountering difficulties due to Covid-related staff shortages. The same-day charter made it to Greece within the requested time frame despite a delayed departure when loading the cargo took longer than planned.”

In terms of aid, 10 to 15 years ago, aircraft charters seemed to be the preserve of getting urgently required cargo to the site of a sudden humanitarian catastrophe, Ben Dinsdale, director for government and humanitarian services, ACS said. “Whilst this is still the case, in modern times, we also find that aircraft charters are the solution for longer term humanitarian crises such as wars and famines.”

Dinsdale said ACS has been working across South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Mozambique, Libya, Central African Republic, DRC and Mali. “A striking feature of the crises in Africa over the past five years is that less than 50% were as a result of solely natural phenomena. The remaining destinations were due to the effects on a population of conflict or unrest, or a combination of factors. Regardless of the cause of the crisis, Africa remains a challenging area for aircraft charters. However, we find that by working closely with professional relief agencies, governments and, in particular airlines with a ‘can-do’ attitude, we are able to provide service beyond expectations."

Ben Dinsdale, director for government and humanitarian services, ACS

Volga Dnepr, the global cargo supermarket for humanitarian needs, has always been among the first to respond to humanitarian missions with fast and effective logistics solutions as the life-saving logistics concept is part of our DNA and culture, said Pauli Immonen, Deputy Director Healthcare, Humanitarian & Emergency Response, Volga-Dnepr Group. "We have extensive experience in working with foreign governments and international relief and aid agencies and we are ready to deliver relief supplies and infrastructure equipment for humanitarian aid like mobile hospitals, four-wheel drive vehicles, generators, healthcare equipment, hygiene products and beyond.”

Pauli Immonen, Deputy Director Healthcare, Humanitarian & Emergency Response, Volga-Dnepr Group

The Volga Dnepr fleet includes 12 An-124-100, five Il-76TD-90VD, 18 Boeing 747 and five B737 freighters. "Volga-Dnepr operates at the forefront of disaster response and was the major player in the relief effort after earthquakes in China, Haiti, India, Nepal and Turkey, after the 2004 tsunami in southeast, during the aftermath of tropical storms in the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico, the Philippines and Vanuatu as well as floods and volcano outbreaks in Pakistan and Chile. We also helped suppress disease outbreaks in West Africa and have been a vital partner in delivering much-needed goods during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Chapman Freeborn, the specialist solutions provider for humanitarian airlifts and airdropping and now a part of Avia Solutions Group, has been involved in humanitarian airlifts since the 1980s.

Chapman Freeborn Germany recently transported over 204 tonnes of cargo from Germany to Namibia to aid in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic. The cargo, which included face masks, gowns and gloves, was transported in an A340 passenger aircraft that had its seats removed so it could be used as a freighter.

A journey recently saw 110.8 tonnes of test kits transported on an AN225, the largest aircraft in the world. The move started at Tianjin Binhai International Airport where the kits were loaded and moved to the final destination of Linz Airport after two stopovers at Almaty International Airport in Kazakhstan and Istanbul Airport.

18 months of pandemic and learnings
“During the pandemic there has been an increased need for airlines to adapt and support various global flows of humanitarian aid,” Drew of Etihad Cargo added. “We increased our support to UAE government initiatives which saw us operating more than 140 humanitarian flights during 2020 alone. Beyond government activity, we also utilised our pharma expertise to become a founding member of the HOPE Consortium, a private-public collaboration driven by the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi to address the global distribution of vaccines and has seen us carrying multi million doses globally on behalf of the consortium. We have also extended our support to UNICEF and the COVAX initiative.”

Air cargo has been on the frontline since the pandemic hit, going beyond to deliver vital products (PPE, medical equipment, vaccines, etc) and support uninterrupted supply chains worldwide, Immonen of Volga-Dnepr said. "For the first six months of 2021, all the carriers of the Volga-Dnepr Group have transported over 390,000 tonnes of cargo which is almost 30% up vs 2020. This was achieved thanks to our product range when we offer dedicated solutions to our customers through the Cargo Supermarket Concept, basically, a one-stop-shop experience. We offer scheduled and charter operations as well as long-term charter and ACMI programs - the latter being mostly appreciated by our customers worldwide amid the ongoing capacity constraints. Apart from that, with the pandemic still going on, we have put a lot of efforts in life-saving logistics, delivering PPE, vaccines and ancillary cargo and other products to help the world in its battle against COVID-19.

"Despite COVID-19, we still support our customers across all the sectors like aerospace (with delivery of satellites for provision of stable internet connection), high tech (to ramp up semiconductor production), e-commerce (to keep the pace with the growing volumes of cross border international trade) or water bombers (for firefighting missions) and many others. "

So, did Volga-Dnepr add capacity to handle the Covid pandemic? "In 2020, we followed the market sentiments and our customers’ needs and introduced new products within AirBridgeCargo, as well as across other carriers of the Volga-Dnepr Group, which are long-term regular charter and ACMI programmes, scheduled and charter operations. Throughout more than 18 months, we have seen that this introduction has been appreciated by the customers on a global scale, as it enables uninterrupted supply chains and stable operations for all the stakeholders. Of course, we do leave space for free sales (through various channels, including e-bookings), urgent charter options and prioritize healthcare shipments (e.g. vaccines). At the same time, this product and service range will allow us to follow our growth strategy path and achieve the pre-COVID-19 volumes.

"We have mentioned it before but there are three pillars which helped us in weathering these turbulent times – flexibility, speed and adaptability. Adapting our products and services range in line with the market demand, following our customers’ needs in terms of capacity and agreement terms, being always here to support humanitarian missions and healthcare crises have enabled us to operate smoothly during the last 18 months. Besides, we have strengthened our Cargo Supermarket concept within Volga-Dnepr Group, which allows us to handle all the cargo requests through one-stop-shop and find the most suitable logistics solution. This is a time-saving tool for both parties which has proved especially successful during 2020-2021."

The past 18 months have been completely non-stop in terms of Covid-19 response, Dinsdale of ACS said. "We started by sending PPE from South Africa to China in January 2020. During 2020, we stopped counting after 30,000 tonnes and 65 countries that received PPE on an ACS-chartered aircraft. As the pandemic developed, it moved away from PPE to vaccines, test samples and test kits – and it is the test kits that continue to be a big part of the pandemic response still today. We have had to find capacity from wherever we could get it – luckily having two Chinese mainland offices gave us access to a lot of Chinese capacity, as well as being integral to helping with logistics in China. We also leaned heavily on our ACMI and commercial jet teams, utilising their relationships with the non-cargo carriers – who are now experts having converted their aircraft to ‘preighters’!

Emirates SkyCargo first introduced the cargo-only flights on passenger aircraft and were one of the first players in the world to do so, Lister said. “We used the widebody capacity of our Boeing 777-300ER passenger aircraft to provide much needed capacity for the movement of essential goods. We also rapidly rebuilt our network in the aftermath of the pandemic, reconnecting 100 destinations within 100 days from the total suspension of flights.

“If there is one lesson that COVID-19 has taught us it is that we must always be agile and stay on our feet. You have to think outside the box. Use what you have, whether its aircraft, infrastructure or people as every strength counts and can help save lives. Logistics resilience is key and must ensure to keep food, supplies and medicine flying. The pandemic has demonstrated to us that even the most carefully laid out plans can be changed overnight. The only option is to work closely with our customers, continuously innovate and stay ahead of the game.”

The aviation and air cargo industry are currently still coping with the effects of the pandemic, Lister added. “However, one thing that the pandemic has done is to encourage innovation. We have implemented measures that we thought were never possible before like operating cargo-only flights on passenger aircraft or loading of cargo on the seats of the aircraft. The industry that emerges from the crisis will be much more responsive, agile and resilient in dealing with such worldwide disruptions.”

Saba of IHC said: "The immunisation campaigns implies the movement of both vaccines and related ancillaries (syringes, cool boxes etc). Vaccines need to be transferred through a reliable cold chain and air-transport is largely preferred. How the immunisation plans are going to influence air cargo movement depends only on how the vaccination campaigns will move on and the funding availability for such operations."

Why continue aid support
"We feel that ACS is in a unique position to assist where humanitarian aid is required," Dinsdale said. "We have a history of delivering aid within Africa dating back to the early 1990s, and our global presence means we can reach and work with an increasing number of NGOs, aid agencies, governments, as well as a number freight forwarders specialising in humanitarian cargo.

"We have always been very focussed on Africa and in recent times this continues. Our focus in Africa is supported by our local office in Johannesburg that supports our worldwide operation with local contacts and clients as well as excellent sources of local knowledge. Due to the very nature of crises, they are often unexpected or out of the scope of the nation’s own emergency services. Therefore, our focus remains in being ready to assist where needed and organising our resources around this ability."

Emirates SkyCargo is committed to the communities “we serve, especially in developing nations,” Lister said. “As a global air cargo carrier, we realise that we have a key role to play in making sure that communities have access to the goods they need during a crisis. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were gearing up for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, we prioritised transportation of vaccines to developing nations.

“In the case of India and our airbridge, Emirates and Emirates SkyCargo are deeply connected and committed to India. From the time that we started operations in 1985, we have been operating to India. We therefore consider it our social responsibility to facilitate the transportation of relief materials to help the local community. Within three weeks of the announcement of our humanitarian initiative, we had already transported more than 100 tonnes of relief cargo free of charge to our nine Indian destinations. The goods transported ranged from multi-purpose tents with oxygen beds, oxygen concentrators, PPE suits, masks, safety boxes and syringes.”

The reason to support humanitarian missions is that “we strive to make the world a safer place to live in and are ready to support our customers in times of need,” Immonen of Volga-Dnepr said. Volga-Dnepr has done 1,600 flights for humanitarian airlifts, carrying 380,500 tonnes of cargo worldwide. Over 125 countries have welcomed Volga-Dnepr aid flights till now.

Immonen said: “Besides, being one of the major operators of the dedicated fleet of unique freighters - An-124 and Il-76 which are self-reliant when it comes to loading/offloading and are ideal for flights to affected regions, we cannot just watch from the sidelines while people are suffering. This is our responsibility. So far, for 2020 and 9 months of 2021, we have delivered over 38,000,000 kgs of COVID-19 and humanitarian cargo aboard versatile freighters of our Group.

“Volga-Dnepr flights have helped to bring timely and much-need support to the victims of some of the most devastating disasters in the 21st century, among them being epidemics and natural catastrophes in Africa. In 2014, following the spread of Ebola disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Volga-Dnepr Group operated 15 flights and delivered 641 tonnes of cargo, including protective clothing for health workers, Mi-8 helicopters and mobile blood testing facilities. In fact, the experience we gained has been a massive support and the platform to start immediate operations when COVID-19 hit.

"In 2019, after devastating Cyclone Idai and floods in Mozambique, Volga-Dnepr operated a series of charter flights with humanitarian cargo aboard delivering over 320 tons of dedicated cargo (tents, purification systems, mobile hospitals and everyday essentials) to support the victims of the region.

"Now we are in the middle of the pandemic – we keep on operating humanitarian flights to the countries and regions in need and so far, completed 4 charter flights delivering over 180 tons of vital cargo to help the nations in their battle against COVID-19 spread. Apart from that, we operate ad-hoc charters for UNICEF and non-governmental organizations."

The IHC community is particularly committed to emergency preparedness and response, and in order to ensure prompt assistance, air transport is the preferred one, Saba added. “In the past 24 months, since the Covid-19 pandemic started, the humanitarian community has been called to respond to the worst combination of emergencies - 'natural disasters, complex emergencies and Covid-19 pandemic.' Many of our dispatches were due to the combination of Covid-19 + other emergencies.

"In the past 24 months, we have witnessed a collapse of the supply chain. Humanitarian aid is largely manufactured in South East Asia from where they are dispatched by sea to humanitarian hubs, including Dubai IHC, thus reducing the operational costs. In the past 24 months, our humanitarian aid dispatches were performed using cargo aircrafts, pax aircraft temporarily readapted for air-cargo transport, military aircrafts and private jets. From IHC Dubai, we are witnessing an increase in the movement of humanitarian aid in the past four years by reaching the peak in 2020 by performing more than 1,200 dispatches for more than $130 million into more than 110 countries. We are expecting to reach the same figures in 2021 due to disasters caused by climate change, pandemic situation, vaccination campaigns and complex emergencies such as Afghanistan."

This article was originally published in Logistics Update Africa' November - December 2021 issue.

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