Hurricanes ravaged parts of the Caribbean last year and urgent freight charters were crucial in delivering relief aid. We look at the logistics behind the operations Transport and logistics are a strategic component of emergency response, ranging from emergency logistics preparedness, through the assessment of needs to the delivery of aid.
Transport and logistics must be carefully integrated in the design of each operation and tailored to the specific needs. In a disaster context, it is essential to ensure efficient and effective delivery, so that assistance reaches the people affected by the emergency as rapidly as possible. Dealing with these issues is complex.
Air freight charters are often the only way to get access to remote places and reach people in need. These flights primarily enable life-saving supplies to reach cut-off populations and make it possible for aid workers to access locations that are difficult to reach.
The official Caribbean hurricane season runs from the 1st June through to 30th November. In 2017, the hurricane season hit the Caribbean particularly hard leaving devastation in its wake. Hurricane Irma which formed in August 2017 and dissipated in mid-September was an extremely powerful and catastrophic.
Lynden Air Cargo, an American cargo airline based in Anchorage, Alaska got the call on September 8th to mobilise relief flights for Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria. “We began flights into the Caribbean on September 17 once there was a clear identification of needs,” explained Rick Zerkel, Lynden Air Cargo president.
He said logistics were challenging considering there was very limited information on which airports were open with uncontaminated fuel supplies.
“Some of the islands completely lost power. Hotel accommodation was also hard to find in some of these locations because they were still being used as shelters for families who could not go back to their homes or sustained damage during the storms.
“We also had to pause flying when Hurricanes Maria and Juan hit the Caribbean a second and third time – on occasion flying around the storms to get to any locations we could,” Zerkel recalled.
Lynden Air Cargo operated the flights under contract with Diplomat Freight Services (DFS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the US, the Red Cross and other supporting agencies and governments to uplift food, water, trucks, fuel and other disaster response supplies.
UK-based Air Partner, the global aviation services group, has also carried out a number of urgent freight charters across the Caribbean during last year’ crisis to support the relief effort in the wake of Irma and Maria.
The flights were operated on behalf of governments, NGOs, charities and commercial entities to several islands in the region, including Puerto Rico, Cuba and Guadeloupe.
“The first hours and days following a natural disaster are the most critical,” Mike Hill, director of Freight at Air Partner tells Airline Cargo Management.
“As soon as an urgent airlift is required, we hit the ground running, researching airport serviceability and infrastructure in the immediate vicinity, as well as re-checking permit lead times, slot requirements and night curfews, amongst other things.”
Hill stresses that getting access to this information requires a picture of the situation on the ground as quickly as possible. “We gain this via insight from our own staff as well as contacts in local embassies and NGOs.
From the moment a request comes in, we provide a round-the-cloak assistance for as long as the project lasts.”
Since many islands suffered communication difficulties in the immediate aftermath of the storms, Air Partner’s representatives on the ground closely coordinated cargo delivery, aircraft loading, aircraft handling and landing requests.
With aircraft availability changing at very short notice, forward planning was crucial to ensuring the successful operation of these flights.
However, unlike normal flight operations there is little time for planning, but despite that, the humanitarian response to an emergency crisis flight still needs to be logistically efficient and effective.
“This is indeed a challenge,”Hill admits. Fortunately, though, he says, Air Partner collaborates with other companies that are trusted partners who are highly experienced in the requirements of emergency flights.
“We keep all clients fully informed with aircraft availabilities and liaise with them on their requirements, which are often liable to change.” In the aftermath of Irma, UK-based all-cargo operator CargoLogicAir also operated a number relief flights to the islands.
On behalf of the French government, the airline operated a 747-400F on 13th of September from Vatry Airport [France] to Pointe-à-Pitre Le Raizet Airport in Guadalupe, followed shortly by the second flight on the 16th September.
According to CargoLogicAir, it took less than 48 hours from the moment of the enquiry being received to the first flight departing France.
A third CargoLogicAir flight was laid on by the British government that ferried 110 tonnes of relief goods to support more than 1,000 British troops and government support staff that were deployed to deal with the devastation that followed the hurricane.
In the immediate period after a natural disaster, the first priority is to ensure a fast response to help victims and relief workers by providing basic essentials such as fresh water supply, food and medical equipment, and to help restore the power, water and communications infrastructure.
Once some stability is restored in the region, the next phase will be to begin the often-tremendous rebuilding programme that is required.
Air Charter Service (ACS), has arranged more than 130 charter flights so far in response to the various hurricanes that have ravaged the Caribbean and some of the southern states in the US, transporting both passengers and cargo.
Justin Bowman, ACS’s CEO, said: “Our US offices were already busy arranging charters in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey in Texas when hurricanes Irma and Maria left a path of destruction across the Atlantic basin.”
ACS staff on the ground in San Juan, helped to coordinate the movements of the aircraft and ensured that the aid got to those who needed it as quickly as possible.
ACS arranged charters for various American specialist freight forwarders as well as the British government’s Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence – one of which was a helicopter on board an Antonov 124 aircraft.
Bowman said the helicopter was used to distribute aid more effectively as many of the airports in the area were badly damaged and unable to accept fixed wing aircraft. Most of the cargo was the usual mix of relief goods, such as shelter kits, water bottles and ration packs for the victims left homeless on islands such as Barbados and Puerto Rico.
“In the lead up to the hurricanes hitting, our passenger division was also working hard, chartering more than 20 aircraft to evacuate groups of people from the region,” he added. In addition, ACS got involved with flying displaced rescue animals to their new homes after they were evacuated from Florida.
Clearly, there are some significant challenges with these types of operations. Hill from Air Partner says experience is key in such scenarios. “Not only is it a competitive business, but there is also often misinformation floating around that can cause confusion around the real situation on the ground. We have to be certain that we have all the facts so that we can guide the client accordingly.”
There is also the issue of stretched capacity, Hill states. “For example, during the Nepal relief effort of 2015, parking slots at Kathmandu airport became harder to secure for later flights, as military flights had priority. Also, due to the volume of flights, fuel reserves became limited. In response, we arranged a shipping hub in Delhi, from where we arranged numerous shuttles into Kathmandu on smaller aircraft.”
Its interesting to know what the selection criteria is for disaster relief missions. Hill says Air Partner will endeavour to provide a suitable solution to every request and don’t use a selection process.
“There are some requirements that will be a better match for current aircraft availability than others, but all clients have different needs and we are always looking for ways to deliver on these, however challenging.
“Our emergency planning division[EPD] team combines excellent broking experience, good relationships with operators and the ability to get people on the ground, creating a service that our clients can rely on, even in the most challenging of circumstances,” Hill explains.
The division experienced a 200 per cent increase in enquiries during the busy storm season and was placed on standby to move people off the Caribbean islands several times, as businesses sought to ensure the safety of their staff.
Air Partner has been operating this pre-planned contingency service for nearly 17 years, supporting industries ranging from energy, construction, banking, insurance, drilling support, mineral extraction and manufacturing to several charity organisations.
As the 2018 hurricane season in the Caribbean begins, its hoped that last years crisis will not repeat itself, but for logistics experts and their go teams – its just a question of time.