Changing face of humanitarian aid logistics

* Devastating flooding in Pakistan impacted over 33 million people and caused an estimated $10 billion in damage.
*Following terror attacks in Somalia that left more than 120 dead and 300 injured, International Humanitarian Council airlifts trauma kits and medical equipment. Almost 38 tonnes of trauma kits and surgical equipment, valued at approximately $130,000, to help over 55,000 people were delivered.
*Indonesia hit again by earthquake – a 5.6 magnitude earthquake leaves over 250 dead in Java.
*34 active conflicts globally, resulting in over 100 million displaced people.
*356 million people will go hungry, particularly in Africa.

Floods, earthquakes, terror attacks, conflicts, hunger, pandemic – any grave situation and the global community gets together to ensure aid reaches people. The question, however, is – right aid at the right time or are efforts getting wasted?

Professor Luk Van Wassenhove, INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group

“Covid-19 has clearly shown that the world is a very complex and heavily interconnected system,” writes Professor Luk Van Wassenhove, who leads INSEAD’s Humanitarian Research Group, for the Humanitarian Logistics Association. “This system complexity also hits the humanitarian world in the face. Complex systems require a different outlook and willingness to align many stakeholders. We can’t do it alone and we heavily depend on what others decide to do. Moreover, the problems are so huge that we cannot even dream of having sufficient resources. There is simply no other solution than to collaborate/exchange/partner with others, be they humanitarian, commercial, or academic.”

Neil Dursley, Group CCO – Cargo Solutions, Chapman Freeborn Airchartering brings in the commercial/humane perspective when he says: “Chapman Freeborn has almost five decades of experience in dealing with natural disasters, war and terrorist-related incidences. So, we are very well prepared as an organisation to react to these global events when they occur. A prime example of this is the recent floods in Pakistan – there is no pre-planning possible in an event such as this. However, we were very agile and very quick to respond, chartering multiple aircraft on behalf of multiple different NGOs, predominantly from Europe into Pakistan but also from some Middle Eastern countries.

“The landscape of how we react to such incidents has changed over the years, most recently in our determination that we need global specialists to support specific industry verticals – one of which is aid and relief. We have expanded on a global scale, and appointed David Tasker as Director – Government & Humanitarian to carry this forward.”

Neil Dursley, Group CCO – Cargo Solutions, Chapman Freeborn

Professor Wassenhove adds here that there is more attention to prepositioning/preparedness and agility in execution. “But with an increasing funding gap this is not easy.”

Planning for disasters is unpredictable and difficult to prepare for, says Ben Dinsdale, Director, Government and Humanitarian Services, Air Charter Service (ACS). “We have put systems in place across the company to ensure that when a humanitarian disaster strikes, we are using our global/local reach to pull together as much information together to create a picture of what is going on at the epicentre as well as suitable capacity to move supplies there.”

Sadly, occurrences seem to be more widespread and conflicts become more frequent, adds Pierre Van Der Stichele, Vice President, Global Freight, Air Partner Group. “Adaptation is the key with constantly reviewing accessibility by air to concerned locations. Checking airport status, for instance, in not just one region but multiple areas is also important, whether the crisis is caused by geopolitical instability or natural catastrophes such as earthquakes or hurricanes/typhoons.”

George Fenton, chief executive, Humanitarian Logistics Association, brings in a different view when he says: “What has changed over the last couple of years is the cost of operations using aircraft, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. The other thing is the realisation that it is better to try to source products locally. The big lesson? Access to personal protection equipment (PPE) during the pandemic as a lot of money was wasted unnecessarily. Local supplies would have saved money.”

George Fenton, chief executive, Humanitarian Logistics Association

The last few intense years, according to Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink, have shown that to meet the needs of communities across the globe, we will certainly require the collective effort, resources, expertise, and labour of civil society, philanthropic and commercial sectors. “But I’m sorry to say, I’m not sure planning has changed very much. The aid and development sector has historically been fragmented and often silo-prone. That largely remains the case, and where Airlink provides a vital role is in bringing organisations together. Planning takes resources – money, staff and time – and those are often in short supply for organisations that work on shoestring budgets in the humanitarian aid space.

“With so many crises happening in such quick succession over the last few years, resources are being stretched to their maximum. Many organisations, including Airlink, have been working at a galloping pace since February 2020 when Covid-19 became a global pandemic. Essentially, we have moved from one resource-intensive disaster to another over a prolonged period. What this has all shown is the critical importance of logistics and what Airlink does, not only through our role as a coordinating force but also by utilising, in a highly efficient way, the donated resources from the private sector such as airlines and aviation businesses. What Airlink brings to bear has saved our non-profit partners millions of dollars as transport and logistics costs are an estimated 73 percent of the total cost of any humanitarian programme, and it is also the most volatile element.”

Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink

“Planning for aid has had to become more dynamic and more flexible,” says Cormac O’Sullivan, Global Head of Emergency and Relief, Kuehne+Nagel. “Disasters are not easily predictable. Although we increasingly have strong indicators, we do not know exactly where the next large-scale disaster might strike and what might be required to respond to it. It can also be very difficult to respond once disaster strikes. Cities, countries, economies can all be severely impacted, reducing the ability to respond quickly and efficiently.

“The community has gotten much better at forecasting which events are going to occur and how they may impact people; there are many complex variables to consider and finite resources. Also in Kuehne+Nagel, our Emergency and Relief Teams continuously monitor global events and we are always optimising our analysis of how these events will impact the supply chains of our humanitarian customers and advising on actions to prevent this.”

We have seen a lack of belly hold capacity over the past couple of years due to the pandemic, says Dursley of Chapman. “However, this is now easing as many passengers return to the skies. We saw prices soar throughout the pandemic in the air cargo world with charters carrying everything from PPE to e-commerce. Those prices have reduced and stabilised this year but over the past couple of years that posed a real challenge for the humanitarian community in their efforts to get aid and relief across the globe. I’m pleased to say we were able to support those NGOs with our long-term third-party partners as well as our own internal assets.”

Ben Dinsdale, Director, Government and Humanitarian Services, Air Charter Service (ACS)

Unlike traditional methods of humanitarian aid programmes, the Covid-19 pandemic has, indeed, been a learning curve for the entire air cargo industry, says Christopher Alf, Chairman, National Air Cargo Holdings. “Lockdowns, the rampant spread of the virus, travel restrictions, and lack of adequate resources all posed newer challenges and required innovative air cargo solutions, never seen before in the industry.

“The capacity crunch was absorbed by the air cargo industry, operating freighter capacities to make up for some of the loss of cargo volumes. Increased capacity & flight frequencies, renewed route structures, on-demand charter availability, new bilateral and multilateral agreements were by-products of this changing air cargo scenario during that period. National Air Cargo contributed significantly to this emerging trend by adding organic fleet capacity, offering more B747-400F aircraft on charter programmes, deploying trained personnel at key junctures to facilitate missions, partnering with global aid agencies and governments to support with the transport of immediate relief materials.”

Natural disasters & air cargo
During natural disasters, Fenton says, “we obviously don’t have a clear idea of what is happening and why they are most likely to be affected. Natural disasters have become much more unpredictable. Many countries that have not been affected, say cyclones, are being hit now. There isn’t enough capacity in the international system to be able to respond to all the crises that are occurring – whether it’s a national disaster or man-made disaster.”

Never has collection of aid been easy, says Professor Wassenhove, “and it is not getting better as far as I know. Of course, some companies are proactive in providing cargo space, etc. I think there are no immediate alternatives to (air cargo). Prepositioning and preparedness can help out (to avoid last minute air cargo).”

The key challenge in recent times is the crisis situation in Ukraine, adds Dursley of Chapman. “We have seen the grounding of the majority of AN-124 aircraft and the loss of the Antonov 225. Those workhorses were constantly utilised for large aid and relief events around the world. Additionally, the pandemic created enormous capacity constraints. However, the situation has improved recently, and we continue to utilise our internal family members as well as third party partners to support humanitarian efforts on a global scale.”

Challenge also includes, typically, the locations, adds Dursley. “They are predominately austere, difficult locations and finding the right partners who are willing to commit their crews and aircraft to those destinations is always a challenge. However, with Chapman Freeborn’s knowledge and five decades of experience, we overcome these challenges, and no destination on the planet is beyond our reach.”

Our outlook remains the same as it has always been with regard to humanitarian aid and we feel that ACS is in a unique position to assist, says Dinsdale. “We have a history of delivering aid worldwide dating back to the 1990s, and our global presence means we can reach and work with an increasing number of NGOs, aid agencies and governments as well as a number of freight forwarders and airlines specialising in humanitarian cargo.

“The war in Ukraine has adversely affected access to a number of aircraft types, specifically the Soviet-era ramp loading aircraft. These aircraft are some of the most useful for delivering humanitarian aid cargo, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. There is always a certain amount of goodwill that goes with logistics around humanitarian disasters. Airports providing free or reduced cost of landing and handling have been seen for a number of years. One of the largest responses I have seen in recent times was in response to the floods in Pakistan this year with a number of Middle Eastern carriers offering cargo space free of charge between UAE and Pakistan.”

Pierre Van Der Stichele, Vice President, Global Freight, Air Partner Group

Air is preferred if road transportation isn’t an option, says Stichele of Air Partner Group. “Nothing has changed but the variety of location and countries has varied in the last 12 months from Ukraine to South Sudan, DRC and Somalia.

“There are initiatives allowing free space on aircraft to certain crisis areas but these are donated on a case-by-case and last minute basis to NGOs. Free rides are not advertised or planned because such flights are at short notice in response to an emergency. Sadly, one must not assume that help is free. Aircraft operations are extremely costly but very effective if managed properly.”

Smith adds: “I and my Airlink colleagues are very proud to be part of the aviation sector. Despite very difficult business environments over the last few years, our partners have donated more and more. Our airline partners United Airlines and Qatar Airways Cargo have again been critical. Qatar Airways signed a three-year agreement with us providing 500 tonnes of free cargo space. We have already used nearly 300 tonnes. We have taken on new partners such as Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines and SEKO Logistics for our Ukraine response. Long standing partners like Flexport.org, Air Canada, Alaska Airlines and Fiji Airways have helped Airlink deliver more than ever before to more places. This year, Airlink calculates that we will have delivered aid and hope to over nine million people across the globe. That said, the need will continue to grow.

“Sadly, Covid set back many aid programmes by years. On top of that, there are 34 active conflicts in the world, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker, resulting in over 100 million displaced people. A staggering 356 million people will go hungry tonight as too many communities live on the edge of famine, particularly in the horn of Africa. The point is, the need is only likely to grow in the future, and I encourage all logistics and aviation- focused businesses to approach Airlink and see how you can become involved and support communities in crisis.”

With the recent e-commerce boom, the majority of air cargo capacity is dedicated to routine routes facilitating the transport of goods and other essentials, says Alf of National. “At times of immediate humanitarian aid, available capacities may not be sufficient to support immediate relief programmes. National Air Cargo, along with its airline company National Airlines, has round-the-year on-demand charter B747-400F capacity to cater to immediate capacity demand. Within hours’ notice, an aircraft with a capacity of over 100 tonnes of cargo can be positioned to fly anywhere on the globe. Such capabilities, along with experienced professionals, make immediate humanitarian aid a seamless process at National.

Christopher Alf, Chairman, National Air Cargo Holdings

“Through partnering with governments, international aid agencies and organisations, National has embraced all opportunities to airlift immediate humanitarian relief supplies and personnel to crisis-hit regions. Irrespective of challenges, pre-existing plans and commercial business commitments, our priority is always to respond to the call of the hour. Over the last decade, we have actively moved missions and humanitarian aid for all global crisis situations within a stipulated time period saving lives and delivering the needed relief.”

Cormac O’Sullivan, Global Head of Emergency and Relief, Kuehne+Nagel

“There is always uncertainty in the humanitarian sector,” says O’Sullivan of K+N. “Our customers need to be agile and responsive. For this reason, air freight continues to be a key modality in the humanitarian supply landscape. Often, we can use established air routes but charters are also sometimes very critical.

“In addition to this, a lot of humanitarian aid is delivered through medical programmes. Vaccines in particular, which require temperature-controlled transportation chains, are more often transported via air freight. This modality is vital to ensure that the right temperature and humidity conditions are maintained. If there is a break or disruption in these conditions, then the efficacy of the vaccine can be reduced.

“Disasters often have a larger impact on regions or countries that have complex terrains or under-developed supply routes. Getting commodities into areas where access has been reduced by floods or an earthquake remains one of the biggest challenges in this sector. Understanding the extent of the event is also challenging. The aid community needs to understand how many people have been impacted, and in what way, before the right kind of response can be implemented. However, getting information after a disaster event can also be very challenging. The community has developed processes and tools so this has become possible but it is always a challenging process.”

Faster responses, thanks to IT?
Quick response has to be done by locals and major organisations are not well-equipped or willing to closely work with (or rely on) locals, says Professor Wassenhove. “For the response in Poland to the refugee issue, there was no real need to send a lot of stuff since most was available locally (Polish economy was doing well). Fast distribution of cash vouchers would have helped many people. Some of it was done but it could have been done faster. Technology is not fully exploited and still depends on ad-hoc initiatives which are difficult to scale.”

Fenton of Humanitarian Logistics Association has a different take: technology has certainly helped to reduce response times in some cases, for example healthcare, through access to technical information. “Again, communication is needed to ensure visibility over what the needs are. Whether it’s a crisis, it’s still more work that needs to be done…in terms of needs assessment, needs identification. Technology should be used more effectively for communication.”

Humanitarian crises always require, by their very nature, an urgent response, adds Dursley of Chapman. “When a client comes to us with a requirement for aid and relief to go anywhere on the planet, we know that it is urgent. The fact that they’re willing to pay for airlift tells us that too. We have always been and continue to be completely focused on supporting our aid and relief customers with utmost speed and efficiency – technology has not changed that.”

Stichele of Air Partner says most carriers, charter brokers and forwarders have evolved in technology. “Tracking has enhanced better delivery control and cut down processes and time. However, when operating to a remote airport with bare facilities, technology is often written off, and we rely on the expertise of brokers to make things happen.”

Dinsdale of ACS adds: “I understand that search-and-rescue benefits from advancements in technology, in terms of thermal imaging which helps with finding people in collapsed structures and would be very beneficial following earthquakes or Tsunami type scenarios. Also drone technology is very useful for surveillance and mapping following a large-scale disaster. In terms of cargo delivery, there is currently no substitute for the provision of airfreight or charter capacity arranged via person-to-person interaction and problem solving. With the potential for a humanitarian disaster to be accompanied by damage to local infrastructure and last minute changes, it is even less likely that this could be entrusted to any sort of automated system.”

“Technology is making a difference, and Airlink is always looking for technology solutions to streamline what we do and how quickly we can do it,” says Smith “but we are far from a place where I could replace my hard working and dedicated programmes team with an online portal for NGOs to access cargo space and tickets directly. There is still a critical need for human organisation, interaction and planning.”

The advancement of technology has improved supply chain responses in the sector in many ways, adds O’Sullivan of K+N. “Along with the commercial world, we see the benefits from greater visibility from the wide array of digital tools. There can still be some gaps in the more difficult and less accessible parts of the supply chain but there is a clear willingness on the part of the humanitarian community to engage with these advancements to improve visibility and response time.”

Vaccines, Pakistan and more
“Air Partner has been involved and recognised as a key player of Covid vaccine, delivering millions of doses to developing nations like Bangladesh and Bhutan. Such flights are on-going, and are likely to continue at least up to the second half of 2023. Other flights performed on an ad-hoc tender basis to regions like Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and the DRC. These flights are often through non-governmental agencies with a very short turnaround and response time for single or multiple flight deliveries,” says Stichele.

“There are serious logistics and supply chain troubles which create both delay and serious cost pressures,” says Smith of Airlink. “Most of those are well known to individuals and have resulted in a big uptick in transport costs. The price rises in commodities and the supply chain challenges that are impacting businesses have created a spike in inflation in many countries. These are the same challenges the humanitarian sector has to deal with. For example, there is a shipping container shortage, adding delays and cost pressures with charities often competing with businesses for access. These charities then come to Airlink desperately looking for solutions.

“One such recent case was a shipment we did on behalf of the USA for UNHCR who received a donation of over 116,000 pairs of winter boots intended for the people of Ukraine. In fact, the donation would cover 20-25 percent of the total population’s needs. Donations of equipment and supplies rarely come with transport costs included. So, aside from not having the logistical expertise, they were presented with an unexpected bill they had to meet. That was just one problem. The second was that the cost of shipping was prohibitive and getting them to Ukraine quickly enough to arrive in time for winter was unlikely. They came to Airlink and through our partnership with Flexport.org we could overcome these problems. This is typical of the challenges faced by non-profit organisations and how Airlink supports them.”

The humanitarian sector still contains vital volunteers but it has also professionalised over the last decades, adds O’Sullivan of K+N. “This has had a significant impact. In the past, large donations of medical items without an inventory were often donated by members of the public and arrived in more of an ad-hoc manner, for example. This could sometimes cause bottlenecks as colleagues on the ground tried to sort through what had arrived. However, as the sector professionalised, more consistent approaches were developed such as standardised emergency relief kits – with all the essential medicines needed to treat a community of 10,000 people for three months.

“Although the number of disasters has increased in the past 50 years, the proportion of mortality has reduced. Consistent, professional service, and investment in professionalisation and preparedness enabled this. The humanitarian sector has created numerous long term partnerships with service providers like Kuehne+Nagel. Kuehne+Nagel has also invested in people and technology as part of this professionalisation of the sector.”

Drones – the new aid frontier?
Drones are very much a hype just like electric vehicles in rough conditions, says Professor Wassenhove. “Drones have limited payload capacity. They can be used very well for surveillance or needs assessment and for quick delivery of urgent stuff (e.g. blood). Very few drone systems operate successfully beyond pilot trials.”

Technology is already present, says Fenton “but the difficulty is in the aviation regulations for effective utilisation.”

This has been discussed for many, many years, especially within Africa, says Dursley. “There are organisations in the aviation and logistics sectors which have already successfully trialled drone activities. This could well be a solution in the future for delivering smaller shipments of urgent aid and relief. There are third party organisations developing this technology, and we are working with many of these organisations anyway today. As and when required, we can look to explore these options in the future.”

There have been some very successful unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) projects in the sector, including an interconnected network of drones in Rwanda as well as some successful trials by the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP), says Dinsdale of ACS. “For the moment, however, these are isolated examples for fairly small quantities. Once an international system is agreed upon to allow UAVs to operate and deliver on an ad-hoc basis, there is scope for their use in emergency first aid in response to humanitarian disasters.”

Although not commonly used yet, the service is expected to become available to aircraft charter brokers and relief agencies in the next two years, says Stichele of Air Partner Group. “Certain commercial companies have already taken steps to test drones, and make use of them in Africa, for instance, in hard-to-reach regions.”

“In theory, this is an exciting new field, which has already been seen to work well in search and rescue, mapping, and medical aid delivery pilot programmes,” says Smith. “Airlink has supported flights for NGO partner volunteer responders across a number of these programmes. “But to temper that excitement, I think there are a lot of issues to be overcome, not just with the tech itself, including air traffic control and regulatory issues, but the systemic fragmented nature of the humanitarian sector. A new and efficient way to deliver aid is great but it’s now a question of how to scale and how to collaborate to unlock the potential drone technology poses.”

“There are many exciting projects that use drones to deliver smaller volume items, like medicines, in complex terrains,” adds O’Sullivan of K+N. “Drones can also be used to gather information about how transportation infrastructure has been impacted by a disaster. It is not clear yet to what extent drones will be used throughout the sector but it is an exciting technology and there is a clear place for it as part of a tool belt of digital and transportation tools that the humanitarian community can use to save lives and alleviate suffering.”


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