Aviation bridging the world and supporting the fight against Covid-19

Disaster response

The global outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) has hit the world of aviation hard. Amid the rapid spread of the infectious disease and the declaration of a state of emergency in many world regions, airlines have had to suspend passenger flights and cut schedules significantly. In an effort to stop the pandemic spread, governments have closed borders and requested or forced people to stay home.

The standstill of public life due to Covid-19 is unprecedented in all respects. The air transport sector has proven its ability to adjust in the past and in the current situation, supports the fight against Covid-19 with what it does best: transporting people and goods to where they are needed. This article explores how the aviation industry shifts medical equipment and staff, repatriates travellers and contributes to maintaining supply chains during the Covid-19 crisis. The examples featured are not exhaustive but provide a snapshot of what the industry is doing – with much more being done in all parts of the world.

Supporting delivery of medical equipment

In a pandemic outbreak, simple goods such as face masks, protective gear, gloves and disinfectant quickly become scarce commodities. Demand is also soaring for medical equipment such as ventilators, lifesaving for patients suffering from respiratory illnesses, and medicines produced as part of the global supply chain.

As one of the first measures to support the fight against virus, airlines around the globe started to transport medical and personal protective equipment to the regions most affected by the public health crisis.

Compared to other modes of transport, air freight is fast and reliable over great distances. Looking at the value of goods, over a third of all international trade is sent by air, but the volume is relatively small, at just 0.5%. In times of crises, however, time is of the essence and authorities turn to the speed of air transport.

Alitalia flight AZ675 landed at Rome Fiumicino Airport on 24 March with two million protective face masks from Sao Paulo, Brazil for hospitals in the Piedmont region in northern Italy, where health workers are operating under very difficult conditions.

Alitalia also organized a series of cargo flights carrying medical equipment from China for Italian hospitals. The first flight in the series with a Boeing 777-300 – the fleet’s aircraft with the largest cargo capacity – brought 160 cubic meters of medical supplies, including three million protective face masks, from Shanghai to Rome on 26 March.

Ethiopian Airlines helped distribute 1.5 million Covid-19 test kits, 5.4 million face masks and tens of thousands of other medical supplies, donated by the Chinese government and tech billionaire and co-founder of the Alibaba online shopping platform, Jack Ma, across Africa.

A Lufthansa Cargo aircraft carrying eight million protective masks on board landed in Munich on 7 April. The 26 tons shipment was transported from Shanghai on behalf of the Bavarian State Government. As of 7 April, all 17 Lufthansa Cargo freighters have continuously been operating to transport medical supplies around the world and to Germany. In addition to the regular cargo flights, 25 special flights have been operated with Lufthansa passenger aircraft solely used as freighters and a further 60 cargo flights with passenger aircraft were planned for mid-April.

Especially now, cargo flights are of utmost importance for medical facilities but also for craftsmen and large corporations. We are doing everything we can to maintain supply chains during this crisis and ensure that people receive sufficient supplies.

Carsten Spohr, Chairman of the Executive Board and CEO of Deutsche Lufthansa AG

In March, Qatar Airways transported over 50,000,000 kg of medical and aid supplies to impacted regions around the globe. This equates to roughly 500 fully loaded Boeing 777 freighters.

Some other examples of airlines supporting the rapid distribution of medical supplies include:

  • Israeli airline El Al is operating 11 flights, which bring millions of essential medical equipment and items from China to Israel, including masks, protective suits and ventilators.

  • Delta flew half a million surgical masks and other personal protective equipment for health workers from Los Angeles to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  • 300 cargo flights with vital medical equipment for the United Kingdom flew into London Heathrow Airport during the second week of April. In the last week of March, Heathrow saw over 400% increase in cargo only air traffic, compared to the average seen before the pandemic. Over 40% of the UK’s pharmaceutical products such as medicines, vaccines and respirators, are imported via Heathrow.

  • Five Qatar Airways Cargo freighters departed to the Chinese cities Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou carrying 300 tonnes of medical supplies donated by the airline to support Coronavirus relief efforts. The flights are part of Qatar Airways’ voluntary offer of free air cargo transportation for medical relief aid.

  • United Airlines, Japan Airlines and UPS were among those reacting quickly and donating and transporting medical equipment, such as ventilators and protective equipment to the Hubei Province in China, where the virus broke out.

  • UPS assists the U.S. government with logistics planning and transportation for drive-through Covid-19 testing sites with the help of its air and ground network planning and operations teams.

  • Etihad Cargo increased its cargo capacity to top freighter gateways and countries hit by the Coronavirus. By expanding the network to capacity-constrained markets struggling with decreased passenger operations, these operations enable a continued supply of medicines and medical equipment, as well as other vital goods.

  • Korean Air is turning idled passenger planes into freight planes, carrying medical supplies, along with e-commerce packages and electronics for the global supply chain.

  • During the last five days of March, the Indian airlines Air India, Alliance Air, IndiGo, Spice Jet and Dart Blue operated over 62 flights to distribute 15 tonnes of medical equipment to different parts of the country. Since the Indian government halted all scheduled passenger services on 24 March until further notice, these cargo flights are a lifeline that facilitate the movement of essential goods. Airports Authority of India and other airports in megacities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kolkata have supported the lifeline by setting up cargo hubs across the country.
  • Partnerships are more crucial in times of crises than ever before. Dutch KLM works with the three Chinese airlines China Eastern, China Southern and Xiamen Airlines that have now stepped in to generously support the Netherlands by donating tens of thousands of face masks and gloves to Dutch healthcare institutes.

  • Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus flies five of its largest aircraft, the Airbus A330 passenger plane, from Beijing to Ireland per day, packed with health supplies for the Irish health services. Up to 60 such flights are planned for which dozens of pilots and engineers volunteered. Aer Lingus crew won't be able to get off the aircraft once in transit as they will be quarantined if they do.

  • airBaltic operated a special cargo flight carrying one million protective masks and respirators from China to Latvia to support medical staff.

  • Emirates SkyCargo works to alleviate global air capacity constraints by deploying its fleet to transport pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and other essential good such as food to the United Arab Emirates and other international destinations. Emirates’ fleet of freighter aircraft has flown more than 30 charter and ad hoc flights to Taipei, Milan and Casablanca.

  • MASkargo, Malaysian Airlines’ cargo branch, is delivering much-needed medical equipment to Malaysians, while working in collaboration with several government ministries to arrange flight plans for the transport of medical goods, predominantly from China. A recent flight delivered 300,000 disposable masks and 58,000 protective suits, donated by the Alibaba Foundation.

  • Alaska Airlines is donating its freighter fleet to supply large numbers of face masks to hospitals across the US in support of the 100 Million Mask Challenge. Meanwhile, a Lufthansa Cargo flight has arrived in Munich carrying 8 million protective masks from China.

Not only airlines are at the forefront of making sure vital medical supplies reach people. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is also getting in on the action and puts its A330-800 test frame into service, flying charter cargo operations to help move supplies from China to Europe. US-aircraft manufacturer Boeing offers its Dreamlifter cargo plane to transport critical and urgently needed supplies.

Business aviation also plays its part to support the fight against the Coronavirus. Private jet company ASL Group, together with ASL Airlines Belgium and Liege Airport, flew five million medical masks from China to Belgium. The 20-tonne shipment was distributed to hospitals, pharmacies and other medical institutions across Belgium in order to deal with the shortage of medical supplies. This mission is going to be reiterated up to 10 times in the following weeks, with an increase to 70 tonnes of medical supplies and masks per flight.

Converting to cargo

Demand for passenger travel may not exist in times of Covid-19, but global supply chains still demand aircraft cargo capacity. As space in the belly of passenger jets dries up, airlines are innovative and show flexibility. Aircraft normally used to transport passengers have been converted into freighters, filling their belly space, and in some cases even more, with goods.

Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific mounts charter services and operates certain suspended passenger services purely for airfreight to meet cargo customer demand, particularly as China starts to recover from the pandemic and manufacturers resume production that needs to make its way into the global supply chain.

American Airlines operated its first cargo-only flight in 36 years by utilising its grounded passenger aircraft. Delta, United Airlines and Air Canada run similar operations, mostly focused on transatlantic routes. Virgin Atlantic operated its first-ever cargo flight as well, ferrying medical equipment from Shanghai to London.​

With passenger cabins empty, some airlines went even further to boost capacity than just loading cargo into the hold. They fill the cabin with light-weight cargo such as facial masks and gloves that need to move quickly across the globe. This operation is more complex than loading containers and pallets into the hold space, but airlines and ground handlers go the extra mile to ensure aircraft can take as much freight as possible.

Here are some examples:

  • Lufthansa’s long-haul aircraft Airbus A330 normally flies passengers around the world. For once, the A330 became an all-cargo plane to get as many protective and medical supplies from Shanghai to Germany. The 30 tonnes of special cargo were securely stowed on and in between passenger seats and in the cabin’s overhead bins, in addition to the cargo hold.
LH Cargo In Cabin_Web

© Lufthansa A330 transformed into all-cargo flight

  • Like many other airlines, Austrian Airlines had to temporarily suspend its flights as a consequence of entry bans and reduced demand for passenger air travel. However, three fully loaded Boeing 777 carried 200 tonnes of medical supplies on special flights from Xiamen, China to Austria and Italy on 23 and 26 March. The cargo hold and the entire cabin were filled with the material. After a short stop at Vienna Airport, two million masks and over half a million protective suits were delivered to hospitals in the Tyrol and South Tyrol regions and Rome.

  • China Eastern even removed seats on its Airbus 330 to transport millions of masks from China to Czechia.

Transporting medicines and vaccines

As a vaccine against Covid-19 becomes available, air transport will play a crucial role in expediting global distribution in a safe and speedy manner.

Transporting medicines and vaccines is a delicate process. Many medicines and life-saving vaccines need to be used quickly and transported in a strict temperature-controlled environment. Aviation is often the only choice to deliver these supplies where they are needed. An estimated 0.5 million tonnes of pharmaceutical products are transported by air every year.

Cargo airlines and logistics companies continue to invest in temperature-controlled airfreight depots at airports so these life-saving vaccines and medicines can be delivered swiftly to the points of greatest need. As the Covid-19 becomes available, air transport will stand ready for distribution.

In the meantime, Finnair is flying Covid-19 test samples to a laboratory in South Korea for analysis. The airline is part of a consortium of a dozen large Finnish companies involved in a project that aims at doubling the number of Coronavirus tests in Finland. The tests are carried out in Finland and flown to South Korea on Finnair's charter flights. To this end, Finnair operated its first commercial cargo only flight from Helsinki to Seoul and back, also carrying several types of protective equipment.

Lending a hand

In a special flight, Alitalia brought 52 Cuban doctors and nurses from Havana to Milano Malpensa. The team, specialised in infectious diseases or resuscitation and, having experience with Ebola in Africa, headed to the hospital in Crema, Lombardy – Italy’s region with the highest number of Covid-19 cases, where every additional specialist is desperately needed. Venezuelan airline Conviasa flew a Cuban medical team to Antigua and Barbuda and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

On board a China Eastern flight that landed at Milano Malpensa Airport, a Chinese delegation of a dozen doctors, nurses and technicians brought experience dealing with Covid-19 patients to Italian Lombardy hospitals where they support local medical staff.

Showing how vital regional aviation services are to remote communities, Scotland's Loganair is converting aircraft to transport Covid-19 patients in collaboration with the Scottish Ambulance Service. A Loganair Twin Otter aircraft has been converted into an additional air ambulance, allowing it to carry an isolation pods for the safe carriage of Covid-19 patients by air. Loganair is also working to convert a larger Saab 340 aircraft, capable of operating into most highlands and islands airports to become an air ambulance with the capability to carry two pods and accompanying medical teams simultaneously – a conversion that only takes a week.

LH Doctor_Web

© Lufthansa

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, New York-based airline JetBlue has been donating free flights for medical volunteers heading to New York State from other parts of the country to assist hospital staff as they are running at maximum capacity due to soaring numbers of Covid-19 patients requiring life-supporting measures and intensive care. And also Southwest Airlines flew more than a dozen healthcare professionals, who answered the call to serve, from Atlanta to New York. Delta Air Lines also offered free flights for medical volunteers to travel to cities across the country particularly affected by Covid-19. United Airlines has also joined the movement, partnering with New York City to provide free round-trip flights for medical volunteers and Hawaiian Air is offering complimentary flights to neighbouring islands for medical professionals. And Jetfly, operator of one of the largest private aviation fleets in Europe, is making part of its fleet of Pilatus PC-12 aircraft available free of charge to medical professionals in Europe.

But that’s not all: cabin crew from Virgin Atlantic, easyJet, TUI Airways and Scandinavian Airlines take on support roles under the close instruction of nurses and senior clinicians at hospitals and improvised clinics and with ambulance services. Cabin crew are medically trained for inflight emergencies, including in the use of defibrillators and advanced airways, and are good support for the medical staff having to deal with surging numbers of Covid-19 patients. The volunteer cabin crew members undergo further training before helping out at the critical care field hospitals in London, Birmingham and Manchester, as well as in Stockholm.

Air transport also supports the fight against Covid-19 by making sure that researchers are able to travel to research institutions and affected zones to advance the knowledge of the virus and develop remedies.

Getting home

With travel restrictions put in place, in some instances overnight, hundreds of thousands of travelers are stranded abroad. In order to bring travellers home quickly, many airlines operate special flights in close consultation with the governments of their respective countries.

The German Foreign Ministry estimated that some 200,000 Germans spread over the globe from Chile to New Zealand and The Gambia wish to return, some stuck as the reduced number of flights worldwide caused a bottleneck. In order to fly 200,000 people over long distances, 500 Boeing 747 aircraft are needed, 400 Airbus A380s or 550 Boeing 777s.

  • Between mid-March and 6 April, the Lufthansa Group airlines (Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, SWISS, Brussels Airlines, Eurowings and Edelweiss) have flown back over 70,000 vacationers to their home country from 77 airports on all five continents with 360 special flights. 55 more flights are currently in preparation.
El Al Web

© El Al crew showing heart for its passengers on a repatriation flight

  • Canadian Sunwing brought home more than 60,000 travellers over the course of a week, including over 3,300 stranded non-Sunwing customers for free. Sunwing operated over 400 repatriation flights to 45 destinations across the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and Florida at a cost of more than $26 million.

  • LOT Polish Airlines has brought back to Poland more than 36,000 Polish nationals onboard its aircraft as of 26 March.

  • Many other airlines operated and continue to operate special repatriation flights, including American Airlines from Latin America and the Caribbean, Air Canada for hundreds of Canadians trapped in Peru, Ecuador and Spain, Israeli El Al, Ethiopian Airlines, Portuguese Hi Fly from the remote Falkland Islands / Malvinas in the South Atlantic, Croatia Airlines and Air France, just to name a few.

  • EgyptAir operated five flights to evacuate 1,500 Egyptians stranded in Kuwait after flights were suspended due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Medical evacuation

Aviation also plays a vital role in shifting patients to other medical facilities to manage demand within a country or across borders, and to evacuate patients from remote areas or otherwise far from hospitals with adequate care units.

Three federal states in Germany responded to a request for help and admitted patients suffering from the respiratory disease caused by Covid-19 from crisis-hit France and Italy. These patients were flown in and transferred to hospitals with remaining capacity to provide further treatment.

In particular business aviation plays an important role in medical evacuations. Its flexibility allows it to be mobilised on short notice, provide aircraft types suited for specific missions and operate into airports that are inaccessible to others. Some missions are uniquely tailored to business aviation’s capabilities, such as the transport of persons with highly contagious diseases such as Ebola, in which U.S. company Phoenix Air Group specialises.

Covid-19 patients do not require such specialised services. Providers of ambulance jets, such as Swiss REGA, are generally specialised in the transport of patients with infectious diseases, including in the event of a confirmed Coronavirus infection. Contrary to the transport of patients with highly contagious diseases such as Ebola, common air ambulances do not need to be refurbished to transport Covid-19 patients. However, crew members have to take special precautions, protect themselves accordingly and disinfect the equipment after the operation.

Ensuring supply chains for food and other necessities

Air transport ensures that vital supply chains can be upheld and that food and other necessities, in addition to medical supplies, reach populations when life stands still.

Vegtables Web

United Airlines flies some of its Boeing 777s and 787s as dedicated cargo charter aircraft to transfer freight to and from U.S. hubs and key international business locations. With the cargo hold completely full, the first of these freight-only flights reached Frankfurt International Airport with 13 tonnes of goods. Getting critical goods into the hands of people who need them most is extremely important. With the Coronavirus creating an increased need to keep the global supply chain moving, United and other airlines utilise their network capabilities and personnel to get vital shipments such as food and basic necessities to areas that need them most.

Connecting products to people around the world has never been more crucial than during the current crisis.

Jan Krems, United Cargo President

Germany's Lufthansa, one of Europe's biggest airlines, announced that it will do everything in its power to maintain supply chains and ensure that goods are supplied across the country. It described the effort as an airlift for all of Germany, evoking the Cold War operation by American and British planes to keep West Berlin supplied with food and other essentials during a Soviet blockade in 1948 and 1949.

Warehouse With Guysweb

Air transport is not only key to the delivery of food and necessities but also the items needed to produce these goods locally, such as ingredients or industrial pieces for machines. Air transport is vital to many industries’ global supply chains, used primarily for the transfer of time-sensitive goods. Rapid delivery is essential to businesses that provide streamlined production processes, or that rely on urgent delivery of parts for machinery and equipment. Manufacturing facilities all over the world rely on air transport for the delivery of high-value, lightweight and sensitive electrical components.

On certain routes, air connectivity is a lifeline, especially for remote communities on islands. Air Greenland operates the last connection between Nuuk in Greenland and Denmark's capital Copenhagen a few times a week despite all other commercial flights being cancelled. Thanks to the seven-hour journey, operated by a Dash 8 turboprop – one of the industry’s smaller aircraft – Greenlanders can still receive vital cargo that needs to reach the island faster than a ship can.

American Airlines has delivered more than 150,000 pounds of cargo – consisting almost entirely of perishable goods – to Hawaii, supporting the islanders’ need for fresh foods. Aer Lingus will fly up to five flights per day between Beijing and Dublin to transport medical supplies and vital cargo.

Stepping up as manufacturers

An increasing number of aviation companies are joining the effort to combat Covid-19 in an unconventional way by putting their infrastructure, resources, skills and technologies into use. Tools that help us make efficient aircraft parts are efficient at making all sorts of other essential items to fight Covid-19.

Aircraft and engine manufacturers Airbus and Rolls-Royce are part of the VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium which has been working hard to investigate production of a range of ventilator design options to help increase the United Kingdom’s supply of ventilators. The consortium, consisting of 14 firms, has received a formal request from the UK Government to accelerate production of the agreed designs, based on existing technologies, which can be assembled from materials and parts in current production which are readily available within the UK supply chain.

Brazilian aerospace manufacturer Embraer also works on producing ventilator parts and filtration systems for the healthcare sector and aerospace manufacturer CAE designed a prototype in only 11 days for an easy-to-build ventilator. The company plans to produce 10,000 units in the next three months.

Florida-based general aviation manufacturer Piper Aircraft, British engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and the airframe manufacturers Airbus and Boeing have started producing face shields for medical professionals on the frontlines of this pandemic. Delta Flight Products, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, is also manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Ventilator Web

Nothing is too small a contribution

The list of aviation initiatives to fight Covid-19 goes on and takes on many forms. Lufthansa Group offered employees who have completed medical training to quickly and unbureaucratically be released on a voluntary basis to work in a medical facility. The airline group also waived the purchase of nearly a million ordered face masks to make them available to the health authorities. In doing so, the company assumes social responsibility and supports medical facilities that urgently need these masks. Lufthansa Group assured that it had a sufficient stock of masks to ensure its frontline employees’ personal protection.

French engines and aviation systems manufacturer Safran made 60,000 FFP2 masks available to the French health authorities to support medical teams in the fight against Covid-19.

Glasgow Airport owner and operator, AGS Airports, pledged to give £40,000 to support some of the most vulnerable people in society during the Coronavirus pandemic. The funding will be used to support the purchase of hotel accommodation for people who are homeless where they will be able to stay in single rooms, allowing them to self-isolate if necessary. The Simon Community Scotland charity launched the appeal in response to a lack of suitable shelter facilities within Glasgow, after several of which had to close due to health concerns.

To help its New York hometown healthcare heroes at Mount Sinai Hospital get much needed rest between shifts, the airline jetBlue donates cots, blankets, pillows and inflight amenity kits to the hospital staff.

Standing together

Global aviation plays a key role to connect the world – under normal circumstances and in times of crisis. Airlines, airports, air traffic management providers and aircraft manufacturers demonstrate strength and persistence to continue their business for the benefit of the world.

Aviation staff across the board work tirelessly to ensure that critical medical equipment and other vital goods reach populations and that stranded passengers can travel home safely. The aviation industry stands strong and together.


For more examples of the industry's resilience, please visit the ACI Europe #WeAreAviation hub.