Special report: Fast thinking will get air cargo aid to where it’s needed

Rapid decision making by aid agencies and the airfreight industry is the key to getting aid cargo to the people that need it during humanitarian crises.
“Airports can get congested quite quickly and we need to ask how we can make faster and smarter decisions,” said David Quinn, logistics movement officer at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
“It all comes down to communication between us, the broker and the carrier,” Quinn added. “We need to secure aircraft availability, take a lot of information from our partners, turn it into a booking and communicate it back to our partners incredibly fast.
“And we can’t have people saying it’s the middle of the night, it’s a holiday – we need really fast answers.”
Director of cargo operations at Chapman Freeborn, Daniel Carriett, said humanitarian crises highlighted the continuing importance of brokers as “an intermediary between the customer, the aid agency and the airline”.
“We are always available – that’s our business – and we have good, fast access to airlines. We can also act as a knowledge base,” he said.
Regional sales manager at Volga Dnepr Group, Georgy Sokolov added that, as a carrier, “as long as we have correct information about the cargo, we are able to make sound and quick decisions…But when we can’t get proper information, there’s only so much we can do”.
He said that some organisations were more professional than others in putting out correct information.
Quinn added though that it was often very difficult to give out completely accurate information during the first stages of a crisis: “There’s an element of chance; it’s very hard to make that decision in the first 24 hours.”
Carriett added that the aircraft availability situation had changed in the past 10-15 years.
“In the past, there were a lot more small, niche carriers. Nowadays, the Gulf carriers have a lot more capacity but they have got to get a 777 out to wherever it’s needed – though their flexibility is improving as their fleets grow,” he said.
Looking forward, one fear for the future was whether finding suitable niche carriers could become a problem.
Quinn also predicted that more belly capacity would be used to move aid cargo in future, if that industry could learn to respond as quickly as the full freighter sector.
The panel agreed that this could be a good thing, if it meant that agencies would have more cash to spend on aid, as opposed to airfreight.
Asked whether the relief agencies could work in a more coordinated way, Carriett pointed out that there had already been moves in that direction; the World Food Programme effectively ran its own airline and also acts as a broker for other agencies.
But Quinn said that there was still a tendency for large numbers of agencies to contact airlines and brokers during the early stages of a crisis, “giving an inflated sense of what demand is and we have seen costs rise as a result”.
DFID tried to snap up what air space was available and then offer it to the aid community because “the last thing we want to do is buy up airfreight that is not fully utilised”, he explained.
Sokolov said that too many parties being involved in the process could lead to vital time being lost.
Quinn argued that one promising approach would be for the different parties involved in the process to sit down together “during normal times” – that is when they weren’t dealing with an ongoing aid crisis – and formulate suitable measures.
Carriett agreed, saying that there was a natural human tendency to sit back and relax after dealing with a crisis rather than analyse how things could be done better in future.
The panellists also discussed the degree to which aircraft flew out to crisis zones with spare capacity on board. Sometimes there could be good reasons – perhaps a need to get a specific, very urgent piece of cargo on its way on the first available flight – although Sokolov said that, in his experience, empty space was rarely a problem – but rather, cramming in all the cargo offered.
Quinn added that better communication with cargo loadmasters would be an advantage.
The panellists thought that, broadly, there was enough freight capacity to deal with humanitarian crises.
However, Carriett pointed out that there could be issues finding small aircraft capable of getting into severely underdeveloped countries like South Sudan or the Yemen. Air drops were often used, and there could be problems sourcing suitable aircraft, he added.
Rather than aircraft, the main capacity issue was on the ground – at airports, said the panel. In previous crises, this problem had sometimes been solved by flying out airfreight handling equipment, Quinn pointed out, although it was only useful if there were people trained in using it.
But perhaps the biggest aid headaches were not hardware but paperwork and red tape.
Carriett pointed to the huge frustrations in getting hold of permits to fly into or even over some countries.
After the tsunami, it had taken 3-5 days to get permits processed, he said, while Sokolov recalled the difficulties in getting permits to land in India in the days following the Kathmandu earthquake.
From the floor, one attendee asked what efforts were being made to ensure that aid shipments were processed once they had landed.
Quinn said that one of the biggest problems here was unsolicited shipments, “well-meaning but ill thought out” that could “really back up an airport”.
In the aftermath of the Philippines typhoon, a huge amount of cargo that had no clear owner had piled up at the airport, while Carriett said that in Haiti and Kathmandu, the problem had even extended to aircraft – military as well as civilian – flying in without permits, getting clogged up in the system and then holding up bona fide cargo.
Sokolov’s experience of the Haiti earthquake suggested that one effective approach would be to let the military fly their personnel and equipment in first as they are best geared up to handle distribution.
On the subject of land logistics, Quinn said that DFID would only hand cargo over to a partner organisation “when they had a credible plan” to redistribute it.
The participants also agreed that an umbrella organisation able to coordinate the efforts of aid agencies, airlines and brokers could be a good idea, if political issues could be surmounted.
Sokolov said: “We would be willing to sit down with anyone and talk about it.”
Quinn, too added he would encourage any efforts at more coordination, although he was somewhat sceptical as to how much would actually be achieved.
Finally, the panellists considered whether new technology would have a role in future aid efforts. Airships have been suggested as a way of getting large volumes of aid into places where airports either didn’t exist or had been destroyed.
Quinn said that if a company approached him with a fully developed machine, he would certainly consider it, but Sokolov pointed out that while the suggested  capacities of future cargo airships was impressive, the problem was not usually moving big quantities to point of use, but much smaller amounts – and helicopters could already achieve this.
Quinn, though, was rather more positive about the possibilities of using drones. They could be ideal for delivering small volume consignments of medicines and other urgent shipments, revealing that he had been having discussions on the idea for some months now.
Article based on a panel debate at Air Cargo News’ Freighters and Belly Cargo Conference on October 20 in Abu Dhabi.

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