UN Program Puts Aircraft To Work in Humanitarian Missions

 - March 4, 2014, 4:00 AM
The UN’s World Food Programme flies in to remote and often dangerous locations to deliver essential supplies to some of the world’s most impoverished nations.

Think of the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) as the airline for some 1,300 communities around the world requiring humanitarian aid.

Flying for World Food Program (WFP) Aviation, the operational arm of UNHAS, is not for the faint of heart: crews deliver food, water, medical supplies and personnel to remote and unimproved runways in some of the toughest regions of Africa and parts of Asia. Imagine places such as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia/Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen for starters.

Not only are the landing areas poor, sometimes no more than roads, but some are also cluttered with cattle and people who barely understand the purpose of the airplanes they see arriving. WFP pilots know they can’t rely on any infrastructure from local aviation authorities. Some areas are so poor, the WFP says, that it’s nearly impossible to prevent people from stealing the only landing aid they can install for pilots–a windsock.

The WFP was there after the 2008 Haitian hurricanes, the 2010 floods in Pakistan and the cyclone in the Philippines last year. Most experts, though, consider the WFP’s primary theater of operations as Africa, where natural and man-made disasters are a way of life. From January to June last year, UNHAS through WFP Aviation transported 175,654 passengers and 883 metric tons of cargo. In any given month, aircraft log about 3,200 hours carrying 29,000 passengers, averaging 170 movements each day to 270 different destinations. That would make WFP Aviation the equivalent of U.S. regional airline Island Air Hawaii in terms of traffic but most certainly not in complexity.

Flying for WFP Aviation is an intriguing job, and its pilots need big hearts. Samir Sajet, the WFP’s regional safety officer in Dubai, said, “There are more than 900 million people suffering from malnutrition [in the world]. I’ve watched people die in Afghanistan and Sudan. Our message is simple: please help.”

The pragmatic mission never loses sight of the fact that people in Chad or South Sudan would starve during the rainy season if not for the WFP helicopters that transport food and potable water.

Safety and Security

By charter, WFP Aviation operates only in countries that have sought its help. Nonetheless, the security of flight crews is always a major concern, Sajet said. “Locals on the ground often don’t differentiate between UN personnel and anyone else who flies in,” he said. “Many of those people on the ground just want to make trouble for anyone who flies in. We do work with the local security people to assess and minimize the risks as much as possible, but there are some marginal risks pilots still have to take.” A few of WFP Aviation’s pilots have become victims of kidnapping. All eventually escaped. Despite a variety of security threats, WFP Aviation pilots are not authorized to carry weapons.

WFP Aviation spares no effort to ensure that companies that raise their hands to help are capable of carrying out their assigned missions. Sajet said of potential contractors, “It is not easy to be selected. We conduct intensive risk evaluations of every potential operator. Among other things, we look at their financials, human factors, flight operations, maintenance operations, training, pilot experience, safety and security.” The WFP selects aircraft according to a particular mission’s needs in a particular country, not just by the aircraft a company has to offer. In addition to assisting a contractor in developing safe operating procedures for a mission, the WFP also requires each contractor to have a successful safety management system in place from day one.

Mitch Fox, the technical advisor to WFP Aviation’s aviation technical advisory group and an ICAO employee, said, “The WFP has a significant safety organization with its own chief of safety. Once a company is chosen it is assessed regularly, right down to its operations manuals, to be certain it is in compliance with international operations and maintenance standards.” Operators chosen for WFP aviation missions are almost never local to the countries in need, simply because when they’re needed, those countries almost never have the resources available.

Although approximately 80 percent of WFP Aviation’s core activities are focused around the UNHAS, the aviation unit also provides other services to the humanitarian community at large, including emergency food airlifts and airdrops, long-term aircraft charter, cargo charters specifically designed to support UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGO) and donors. At times WFP Aviation even becomes a resource for VIP travel in central and central southeastern Africa. In the Central African Republic, for example, the WFP aviation fleet is the only reliable mode of transportation for humanitarian staff where surface travel is normally out of the question and viable commercial air operations do not exist.

Budgetary Concerns

A lack of financial resources is also a never-ending concern. WFP Aviation’s 2012 budget was $211.7 million, against a total cost of operations amounting to $200.6 million. About half of the annual funding comes from the U.S. and the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund. The remainder comes from European countries, among them the UK, Sweden, Germany, France and Ireland. Japan and Canada are also on the list of donors.

In 2012, total project needs were about $210 million. A hole in the WFP Aviation donations stream that year produced a $54 million shortfall. Cesar Arroyo, WFP Aviation’s chief, said in a recent report that despite financial shortfalls, he expects “WFP to continue as the benchmark service provider of UN humanitarian air services, while also providing timely and effective response to emergencies.” He acknowledges it’s also important to mitigate the WFP’s financial exposure and foster financial sustainability by partnering with suitable organizations and being ready for almost any challenge.

Because training dollars are also scarce, WFP Aviation looks for help from as many volunteers as it can muster, people such as Tom Anthony, director of USC’s aviation safety and security program, and Peter Stein, director of flight operations at Johnson Controls. Both are also members of the Flight Safety Foundation’s (FSF) business advisory committee, which has stepped in to help where it can.

Stein said, “I started thinking about the wealth of experience, skill and talent in the business aviation community, and wondered why couldn’t we help [WFP Aviation].” Stein was soon rewarded with a “put your money where your mouth is” challenge from FSF leadership. He was asked to speak on safety topics at the WFP’s 2011 Global Humanitarian Aviation Conference, as was USC’s Anthony. Stein believes, “If we can help prevent a single [WFP] accident, then people in need have a better chance to receive vital food and medical aid. We leverage our aviation safety expertise and starving people get a better chance to eat.”

Fox said, “WFP Aviation is a dynamic environment because of the natural disasters that often require operations to be set up quickly. We must be able to balance the criticality of any mission with the overall risk so people go into this with their eyes wide open. Sure you want to save as many people as possible, but you don’t want anyone out there playing hero and not thinking about those risks.”

Getting Corporations on Board

It didn’t take much effort to persuade Johnson Controls to allow one pilot to get involved with World Food Program (WFP) Aviation, and participants hope more companies can help. Peter Stein, director of flight operations at Johnson Controls, said that his employer is ranked as a top corporate citizen for its commitment to social responsibility. Stein’s commitment to efforts that supported Johnson Control’s core values meant that “it didn’t take a great deal to convince them [to allow me to help].”

Stein believes it’s important that pilots “help raise awareness within their respective companies that business aviation is part of the global aviation community, and we should do our part to further our companies’ commitment to corporate social responsibility.”

That reminded Samir Sajet, WFP’s regional safety officer in Dubai, of an idea he called Fly and Feed, a not as yet enacted program in which business aviation operators could be of immense help to the UNHAS and WFP Aviation. “We’re trying to convince business aviation operators to donate just $20 for every flight they make during a given period, perhaps a month. On a flight that might cost a company $20,000, adding $20 is nothing at all. But to us, $20 means a lot. It really doesn’t take much at all to make a difference.”