Road Warrior

Airlines helping to save lives with humanitarian efforts

Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC
Through its Humanitarian Delivery Flight Program, Boeing has worked with 50 airline customers to deliver more than 1.4 million pounds of supplies. 26 of those flights have been on Ethiopian Airlines planes.
Source: Boeing

Airlines, which have been making money hand over fist as energy costs decline and passenger traffic rises, are applying some of that bounty toward humanitarian purposes.

The industry is helping to offset a $15 billion funding hole in global disaster relief by flying supplies to needy countries. A recent United Nations report found that while at least $40 billion in humanitarian aid is needed annually to help victims of natural disasters and armed conflicts worldwide, the world spends only $25 billion a year on securing and getting food, water, shelter, medical supplies and other emergency resources to far flung regions.

Since 2008, airlines such as Emirates, JetBlue, South African Airways, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines have worked with Airbus on at least 30 delivery flights. Those flights have brought more than 250 tons of humanitarian relief to areas of Nepal, Colombia, Thailand, Africa and Haiti.

The airlines certainly have their work cut out for them. A tumultuous global economy is giving birth to new disasters virtually all the time, and the costs associated with rushing humanitarian relief to where it will do the most good are high. For this reason, a variety of alliances between airlines, aircraft manufacturers and nongovernmental organizations have stepped into the void.

Through its foundation arm, aircraft manufacturer Airbus has been filling otherwise empty new aircraft in Germany and France with humanitarian relief supplies destined for disaster-hit regions. On more than 15 occasions, Airbus has also used its test planes to deliver additional supplies quickly in the aftermath of disasters.

"The flights are happening anyway and the pilots and the fuel are already paid for," said Airbus Foundation spokeswoman Deborah Waddon. Nongovernmental organizations "arrange for the cargo, we make donations for the cost of the cargo, the loading is often done for free and the airlines cover just an incremental fuel cost for the extra cargo."

These flights have helped transform lives with their precious cargo.
Bill McSherry
Boeing's vice president of government operations

In 2015, a test aircraft loaded with 50 humanitarian staff and about 22 tons of food and medical aid flew to Nepal after its devastating earthquake. Meanwhile, a Nepal Airlines aircraft delivery flight was used to transport more than 5 tons of relief goods and medical equipment to Kathmandu.

That kind of effort does not go unnoticed, or unappreciated.

"Transporting supplies is one of our main expenses, so this way we can support more people," said Olaug Bergseth, a senior officer for corporate partnerships with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, one of the NGOs that works closely with Airbus.

"It's faster, it's more efficient and it's cheaper."

Through its humanitarian delivery flight program, Boeing also works with nonprofit and NGOs to load everything from medical supplies and clothing to educational materials into empty cargo space in new airplanes. Those flights then transport and deliver supplies to areas of need.

Factory-fresh planes being delivered to customers are often filled with goods and supplies destined for disaster-hit regions.
Source: Airbus Foundation

Since 1992, Boeing's program has made 180 humanitarian delivery flights, working with more than 50 airline customers to deliver more than 1.4 million pounds of supplies.

At least 26 of those humanitarian delivery flights have been on Ethiopian Airlines — which has also helped its neighbor, Somalia, by bringing back needed supplies.

"These flights have helped transform lives with their precious cargo," said Bill McSherry, vice president of government operations at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Delivery flights don't always get relief supplies exactly where they need to go. For that reason, Boeing often teams up with Airlink, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit disaster relief organization that works with dozens of airlines and NGOs, to transport supplies and relief workers.

During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Airlink sent health-care workers and 100 shipments of aid for 37 different NGOs using 11 airlines. More recently, Airlink used donated miles and funds from Air Canada, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines to send 19 military veterans from Team Rubicon USA and Team Rubicon Canada to Fort McMurray in Alberta. Those excursions helped residents return home after devastating wildfires destroyed more than 2,400 homes.

"We focus a lot on disaster response," said Airlink executive director Steven Smith. The organization "also [focuses] on what you might call slow-burn events, such as an education program in Africa that is teaching children not to play with land mines and other remnants of war."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.