Aviation’s speed and reliability is perhaps most immediately apparent during times of natural or humanitarian emergency. Air services play an essential role in assistance to regions facing natural disasters, famine and war. They are particularly important in situations where access is a problem, delivering aid, search and rescue services and medical supplies.

Whilst some of these efforts are undertaken by military or specialist air services, a great deal of the support is provided by the commercial air transport system. Airports become staging points for rescuers and relief supplies, cargo deliveries and refugee transfers. Airlines assist with the evacuation of people stranded by natural disasters or victims of conflict. But infrastructure is also vulnerable to the same natural disasters that hit their communities. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the local airport had to shift from an average of 35 flights a day to more than 100. With a damaged control tower, the US Federal Aviation Administration was able to bring in a temporary air traffic control facility to support the response effort. Airlines from around the world responded to the call for the movement of rescue teams and supplies of food and medicine.

The major manufacturers, too, respond routinely with flights using either test aircraft, or as part of delivery flights to airlines in the region.

As companies (and employees of those companies), airlines, airports, ANSPs and manufacturers are involved in corporate charity work and when natural disasters impact an area of the world, many respond with funds. However, it is the in-kind ability for commercial aviation companies to rapidly respond to emergency situations that make them valuable partners of aid agencies and governments.

But the disaster doesn’t end when the TV cameras go home. Often, recovery efforts go on for months or years following a natural disaster and the re-establishment of scheduled air transport services are a vital part of an area’s economic and social recovery. A number of airlines have established long-term and ongoing relationships with aid agencies to help provide passenger or cargo services well after the initial period of crisis has ended.

Air UN

The United Nations World Food Programme operates an airline, WFP Aviation, and also coordinates the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). Air operations are necessary because access to conflict and disaster zones is often limited by insecurity, poor road infrastructure, long distances and lack of commercial air services. These UNHAS flights serve Central Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan and in 2012 carried 353,000 passengers and nearly two million tonnes of cargo. In 2013 the agency assisted more than 80 million people in 75 countries with food and aid deliveries. As passenger operations, they are mainly used by UN and international aid agency staff.

Importantly, the UNHAS also delivers training courses in the countries it supports to help build local skills and, in effect, make its services redundant in years to come.

Partnering with UNICEF

Since 1987, cabin crew and airline ground-staff around the world have collected more than $120 million in unused currency from passengers to support UNICEF’s global Change for Good programme. Change for Good aims to reduce the number of preventable childhood deaths and, thanks to generous donations from passengers, UNICEF has been able to save more than 16,000 additional lives each day than was possible in 1990. The Change for Good programme is in operation on 12 airlines.