Air services play an essential role in assisting people in times of disasters, famine and war. They are particularly important in situations where other means of access are obstructed by natural disasters, ongoing conflict, or poor road infrastructure. Air transport is vital in delivering food, medical supplies and search and rescue services.
While some of these efforts are undertaken by military or specialist air services, the commercial air transport system provides significant support. Airports become central hubs for rescuers and relief supplies, cargo deliveries and refugee transfers. Airlines assist with the evacuation of those stranded by disasters or conflict.
However, air transport infrastructure is also vulnerable to the same natural hazards 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, food, and medical supplies.
Major manufacturers also routinely respond, using test aircraft, or as part of delivery flights to airlines in the region.
United Nations Humanitarian Air Service
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) coordinates the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), which enables aid workers to reach particularly remote and challenging locations. Air operations are vital because access to conflict and disaster zones is often limited by lack of security, poor road infrastructure, remote locations and lack of commercial air services. These UNHAS flights serve 14 countries in Central, West and East Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan and UNHAS regularly transports an average of 27,000 passengers and more than 220 metric tonnes of light cargo per month to over 285 destinations. These flights are also used by UN and international aid agency staff.
Many airlines, airports, air navigation service providers and manufacturers are involved in corporate charity work. When disasters strike, many donate at a company and individual level. However, it is the practical support and ability to respond rapidly to that to emergency situations that makes commercial aviation companies such 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 even years following a disaster, and the re-establishment of scheduled air transport services is a vital part of an area’s economic and social recovery. A number of airlines have established ongoing relationships with aid agencies to provide passenger or cargo services well after the initial crisis has ended.
Supporting UNICEF's Change for Good programme
Since 1987, cabin crew and airline staff around the world have collected more than $160 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, UNICEF has been able to save around 16,000 more lives each day than it could in 1990. The Change for Good programme operates globally across 10 airlines.