Myriad considerations need to be borne in mind when it comes to the provision of food and other aid through air operations into natural disaster, emergency, and conflict zones around the world.
Air traffic management, security, airfield and ramp safety, service impartiality and war-risk premiums in conflict zones, reduction of risk to humanitarian staff working in remote locations, airstrip assessments, aircraft effectiveness (in the wet season, helicopter deployment increases due to runway degradation for fixed-wing aircraft), passenger booking systems, aircraft tasking, and medical and security evacuation services, all need to be overseen at times when logistical operationality needs to be maximized.
Due to expertise gained over many years, in 2003 the Rome, Italy-based World Food Program (WFP, Village F18) was given responsibility for providing “safe, reliable, and cost-efficient” air transport to all UN agencies involved in relief operations. This led in 2004 to the creation of the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) which, in 2018, acting as one of three “common user” services available to the international donor community, operated in 16 countries, transported 386,330 passengers and 3,655 metric tons of cargo. Logistics and telecommunications are also required to keep aid flowing to disaster areas.
According to the WFP, UNHAS serves “non-governmental organizations (NGOs), United Nations agencies, donor organizations, and diplomatic missions, and government humanitarian staff.” It also provides “transport of light relief cargo such as medical supplies, specialized food commodities, and high-value equipment (such as information and communications technologies).”
UNHAS is the UN’s only mandated humanitarian air service. WFP does not own a fleet of its own, but contracts aircraft from operators holding air operator certificates (AOCs) that are pre-evaluated by the WFP Aviation Safety Unit. In turn, these aircraft are managed by UNHAS.
“UNHAS started in 2004,” Carlos Botta, deputy chief of WFP Aviation Service, told AIN. “Before this, the WFP was involved in air operations in support of WFP’s food assistance project. Across all sectors, UNHAS provides air transport to approximately 700 organizations and their impact would be [negligible] without the access provided by UNHAS.
“WFP Aviation also invests in in-country capacity strengthening initiatives, to build…the ability to operate effective and efficient air services that meet international standards. The goal is for UNHAS to close shop the moment commercial operators that meet international safety standards emerge. The [downside] is that this is [rarely] the case due to the very low-level capacity at inception.”
Standby Aircraft Support Fleet
Today, UNHAS operates a fleet of 63 aircraft in ongoing operations. The WFP enters into standby contracts with air operators to cater to surge requests during emergencies. Close to 40 aircraft are on a standby contract to enhance operational agility, especially during sudden-onset emergencies. Botta added that South Sudan, where 95 percent of airstrips are unpaved, was the WFP’s biggest operation, with 14 aircraft dedicated to common service, and Mauritania its smallest, with only one.
“Currently, WFP has close to 100 registered air operators that not only meet ICAO international standards, but also the United Nations Aviation Standards for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian air transport operations (UNAVSTADS), whose assets may be contracted through a rigorous competitive process,” Botta said.
“During emergencies, governments may donate aircraft or airlift relief supplies to the principal airport in the country. WFP Aviation may support coordination of all incoming airlifts where local capacity is unable to meet demand. WFP receives in-kind contributions from donors and there are internal mechanisms for accepting these which are beyond the technical role of aviation.”
UNHAS operations are concentrated in Africa and Asia. The operation is active in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.
Botta said the WFP uses a wide range of small- and medium-size aircraft for its passenger services ranging from the 12-seater Cessna Caravan (C-208B) to the A320. “Other aircraft types include the Beech 1900D, Dornier 228, Dornier 328, Embraer 135LR, Embraer 145LU, Embraer 145MP, DHC-8-102, DHC-8-202, DHC-8-302, and DHC-8-402 and LET 410, while our helicopter fleet comprises MI8, models MTV, AMT, T, and P, and the Bell 412 and 212.
“In 2019, WFP deployed its air service in support of the response to Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. With increasing insecurity in Burkina Faso, UNHAS received the request to activate air operations to support all sectoral responses. In addition to these emerging needs, UNHAS will maintain existing operations in the sixteen countries to enable the humanitarian and development community to reach populations in need of assistance.”
Last year, the WFP’s Fast IT and Telecommunication Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST) celebrated 20 years of operations at the Dubai, UAE-based International Humanitarian City (IHC). “IHC has been a key strategic partner to the WFP and provides air assets during sudden onset emergencies to support airlift of urgently needed relief supplies,” Botta said. “From the beginning of 2018 till date, IHC has provided aircraft for seven airlifts to Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, and Mozambique.
“This enabled the airlift of 390 metric tonnes of life-saving aid, out of the United Nations Humanitarian Response Report (UNHRD) for the following organizations: WFP, IOM, UNICEF, Good Neighbors, SDC, WHO, Save the Children, CRS, ADRA, SDC, World Vision, Lions Club, Welthungerhilfe, and ACF.”
Natural disasters have been on the increase, requiring speedy response to assist affected populations. Due to climate-induced disasters, the humanitarian community will continue to rely on the WFP-managed UNHAS to reach affected populations, Botta concluded.
“Natural disasters very often destroy transport infrastructures from road bridges to airports,” he said. “Access to the population becomes a significant challenge to aid delivery. Air transport is the fastest means to reach people who will otherwise be inaccessible by road. As part of WFP’s preparedness measures, certified and pre-qualified air operators have been identified across all regions of the world and a pool of staff capacity exists, to ensure immediate deployment of air assets and personnel in sudden onset emergencies. Response time in such emergencies is between 48 to 72 hours.”