It has no regular airline schedule, no first-class lounge and flies only to isolated areas prone to conflict or natural disaster. Backed by EU financing, a special United Nations aviation service flies only to the frontline of humanitarian need. EURACTIV reports from the Paris Air Show.
The UN Humanitarian Air Service delivered aid workers and relief aid to 13 countries last year and operates today in hard-to-reach regions of including Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa.
“We go where nobody wants to go,” said Eric Perdison, deputy chief of the aviation division at the World Food Programme, which operates the UN’s air service using chartered planes. “We do it where a commercial service is either not present or where the local service is judged not to meet international safety standards.”
The EU’s Humanitarian Office, ECHO, operates a similar service – ECHO Flight – in East and Central Africa in coordination with the WFP. The EU agency is also the second largest funder of the UN’s air service, after the United Nations’ own operational fund, while several EU states also help finance the operations.
Difficult flying conditions
The humanitarian service transports relief workers, aid workers from non-governmental groups and UN VIPs to areas where food, health and other relief operations are needed. It also transports food and medical supplies.
Conditions can be forbidding. Bad weather and primitive landing strips pose regular challenges that must be assessed by the UN’s security hierarchy as well as the WFP’s Aviation Service. “Each take-off and each landing has its own risks,” Perdison, a former Ghanian air force pilot, told EURACTIV at the Paris Air Show. “The ultimate person to make the decision is the pilot in command.”
Conflict zones also pose palpable threats for pilots and their passengers.
In March, French troops operating in Mali found launch tubes for portable SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, a Soviet-era weapon believed to be held by an al-Qaida wing operating in the African nation. Last week, the Associated Press news agency reported the discovery of a manual training Qaida loyalists how to shoot down aircraft using portable missiles.
In January 2011, three Bulgarian crew members of the Humanitarian Air Service were abducted while on a relief mission in Darfur. A month earlier, three Latvian crew members were held captive in Darfur. All were eventually released.
Such challenges require a degree of training that most commercial airline pilots do not have.
The UN’s operations grew out of a need for rapid movement of aid workers to areas unreachable by ground transport or commercial air services – and for safety. The 1999 crash of a charter aircraft in Kosovo killed all 24 people aboard, including the flight crew and UN relief workers responding to a post-conflict humanitarian and refugee crisis.
The accident in Kosovo prompted UN reviews that called for better stepped-up safety standards for charter airlines working under UN contracts.
The French charity Aviation Sans Frontières is among those authorised to work for WFP. ASF transports aid workers and supplies to isolated areas of the conflict-prone Democratic Republic of Congo using a pair of nine-passenger Cessna Caravan aircraft.
Jean-Claude Cuisine-Etienne, the chief pilot of ASF, said pilots undergo tests in the field and ASF faces regular audits and safety reviews. “It is rigorous,” the retired Air France pilot said, adding that pilots working for the UN must exceed the minimum flight hours and standards of commercial airline pilots.
WFP’s Perdison said there are often trade-offs between security and getting aid workers into the field, and in some cases, pilots will drop supplies when it is no safe to transport aid workers. “We’re not going to leave the beneficiaries hungry,” he said. “We may have to go in with an airdrop, but this is not ideal.”
Still, the UN air service has had to turn down flight requests. Lack of financing forced WFP to scale back operations in Afghanistan and Sudan, and to cut its mission in Côte d'Ivoire, the West African nation that was wracked by post-election violence in 2011.
“Gaps in funding and the unpredictability of donations mean that it was impossible to fully implement some of the activities we had planned,” WPF aviation service said in its 2012 annual report.