Airlink’s Steven Smith: How airlines can save lives

Be it either Ebola or an earthquake, the aviation industry is always ready to help, providing charitable logistical support by flying rescue workers or humanitarian aid to the disaster zone. That’s where Airlink comes in.
Airlink is a non-profit rapid-response organiser partnering with 35 airlines and more than 60 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide global humanitarian relief.
Steven Smith is Washington-based Airlink’s executive director with “a passion to help those affected by disasters and by doing things that make a difference in the world”.
Smith, who joined Airlink four years ago, has had a varied career path which includes US sales for Rolls-Royce, an IT start-up and service with a conflict management organisation in South Africa.
Says Smith: “I have worked in the corporate world and I have always had a deep interest in the humanitarian and charitable sectors.” Airlink, whose advisory council reads like a Who’s Who of global aviation, was established in 2010 and has worked with its airline members to respond to a number of ‘rapid-onset disasters’, including the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the Ebola crisis in West Africa.  
Says Smith: “The idea was to use our connections with the carriers and to come together as an industry trying to support disaster response. We use our relationships with the airlines to support small to mid-size NGOs in moving people and their cargo in a cost-effective manner.”
One practical example of this is for the delivery of new aircraft to include humanitarian cargo for logistical support, supplying relief aid to storage warehouses around the world.
The core work is when disaster strikes and aircraft are needed to bring in vital supplies as quickly as possible.
Says Smith: “NGOs always have passenger or cargo needs, for example to transit search and rescue teams, and so the whole crux of Airlink is in terms of merging airline networks around the world to fly passengers and cargo from origin to destination.
“We work closely with our airline partners to find space, but we are not talking about bumping revenue cargo. Typically there is little or no cost involved for the flights, as it is usually donated.”
Airlink is now working to build a financial resource that can offset some of the costs associated with carrying humanitarian aid within donated aircraft space, says Smith.
“It is one thing to give away a few seats or to allocate pallet positions away in the belly of a passenger aircraft, on a flight that is already going to depart anyway, but quite another to launch a freighter flight which can involve hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“That is a real cost, and so sometimes an airline may say ‘we will fly the aircraft for you and crew it but you guys need to help find a way to offset the fuel costs’.”
Many freighter airlines already give generously, and to give just one example, a recent emergency in Ecuador saw Atlas Air offer space on its regular widebody flights out of Miami to Latin America.
Further on in the season, those freighters were coming back full of high yield cargoes of flowers: “Sometimes you need a little bit of luck too,” adds Smith.
The Ebola crisis posed a particular logistical challenge, because only two passenger airlines continued to serve those African countries hit by the fatal virus which would claim many thousands of lives.
“The key thing about Ebola is that while only two passenger carriers and a number of charter operators continued to fly, it did not mean that other airlines weren’t supportive.
“Airlink chartered airplanes for the last leg which was from Liege in Belgium down to the three key Ebola-hit areas: Freetown in Sierra Leone, Monrovia in Liberia and Conakry in Guinea. 
“We had 10 airlines that came together to support us by flying cargo and triangulating it into the Liege hub. We had carriers from all across the US flying medical supplies in, we had Air Canada flying material in from Canada, British Airways helped from the UK and Federal Express launched a freighter from Memphis full of relief aid going to the International Medical Corps in collaboration with the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
“Those aircraft were all going to meet our charter from Liege. Nippon Cargo Airlines is another really big supporter of ours. It has a great frequency from Chicago to Hahn in Germany and we were pulsing things through with those guys and they were trucking it to our Liege hub. They even helped to load our charter plane, which was from Western Global.”
Smith sees Airlink’s role as coordinating the airlines, adding:  “I don’t know that they will all get on the phone and talk to one another, but that is one thing we would like to help and encourage as we go forward.
“One of the unique things that we do is to pull together airlines that might not ordinarily work in some kind of interline agreement, or they might even be direct competitors.”
So, what more can airlines do to help?
“We now work with about 35 airlines and we want to get closer to them and to enlist more airlines to support us. Nobody knows when the next disaster is going to happen or where it is going to happen and therefore we do not know whose airline network will be needed.
“The more partners we can get on board to support us, the more things we can do together and have a greater impact.”
There is also a suggestion that cargo bellyhold capacity is not on the radar of the humanitarian cargo com-munity, and this needs to be addressed, says Smith: “Belly is a big area of business for most of the commercial passenger carriers and they have a little bit more flexibility to help the NGOs. 
“Of course, there are known shipper issues, and so we have to navigate those regulatory areas, but I think we are bringing a resource to the market that most of the humanitarian aid community is not probably looking at.”
Airlink also has an important middle-man role between the airlines and the humanitarian aid community.
“The value that we at Airlink deliver to the aviation community is that we spend a lot of time vetting the NGOs, to make sure that they do the basics and are legal and above board and have a strong operational history. And we make sure the NGOs have a distribution plan at the destination once the cargo gets there.
“We make sure that they are not sending duffel coats to beaches. The lack of a centralised command and control is a really big systemic issue, and we try to help with that.”
Airlink does not source the humanitarian aid but works closely with the NGOs, who do. By such preparation, Airlink insulates the donor airlines and their expensive assets from any delays or hold-ups caused by Customs or other local authorities. 
Smith here acknowledges the “generous” role played by some freight forwarders and air charter brokers, either at a corporate or individual level, which help out when required.
Members of the aviation industry, both in the air and on the ground, are welcome to contact Smith via the Airlink website (airlinkflight.org).
He concludes: “Airlines often come to us and ask: how can we help? We can help those airlines come together as an industry to support the humanitarian aid community.”

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