Covid-19: How the aviation sector can support humanitarian aid relief

The Covid-19 pandemic has so far been more widespread in developed countries, although it is now expanding to the world’s poorer nations, where its impact on human lives may be even more significant in the longer-term.

Whilst many developed countries face an uncertain economic future, it is essential that humanitarian aid is provided to those areas of the world, particularly in Africa and the Indian subcontinent which have limited healthcare resources and may face difficulties in implementing appropriate social distancing measures. Covid-19 outbreaks in these countries may also be compounded by widespread famine. There are particular challenges in some situations such as refugee camps where, in some cases, humanitarian aid workers, including medical personnel, are currently unwelcome as they are seen as potentially carrying the virus.

Traditionally humanitarian relief has been provided by the main international agencies in conjunction with NGOs. These include UN agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), USAID, the EC’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) and the International Federation of the Red Cross.

The NGO sector includes a wide range of charitable organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, Oxfam, Care International and many others. These will provide support in the fight against Covid 19 whilst continuing their role in other emergency and disaster relief. But charities themselves are impacted by Covid-19. A recent survey indicated that, on average, UK-based charities expected their income to decline by some 32% this year and that 52% had already reduced their activities. It is possible that national governments may provide some financial support to charities, although this must compete with other sectors of the economy facing similar challenges as a result of Covid-19.

Aviation is vital to transport medical experts, emergency staff and equipment to those areas most in need. Specialist relief flights will be required at the global level and on a regional basis from the main airport hubs out to remote regions where no alternative method of transport is feasible or safe. WHO and WFP are supported by UNHAS (the UN’s Humanitarian Air Service) which charters aircraft from the commercial sector and currently provides flights to some 16 countries worldwide.

DG ECHO operates two similar charter operations, ECHO Flight and the EU Flight, predominately in sub-Saharan Africa, which are complemented by other ad-hoc charter flights, as required. The IFRC also charters from the commercial sector and through partnerships, including a Framework Agreement with Airbus. These air services were used extensively during the Ebola outbreak in Africa but will need to be ramped up if, as expected, the Covid-19 pandemic expands to the less-developed world. ICAO is ensuring delivery of humanitarian aid through its CAPSCA Programme (Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation).

Somewhat ironically, whilst many commercial aircraft are now grounded as a result of Covid-19, the demand for specialist humanitarian aid flights is likely to increase.


To achieve this, it is important that appropriate airport and air navigation services remain operational, particularly in face of possible funding and staffing shortages during the pandemic. There may also be shortage of suitable aircraft types that can be chartered, particularly in remoter regions served by gravel runways or dirt strips suitable only for certain turbo-prop or piston aircraft.

The aviation sector has proved in the past that it can provide quick and reliable support for disaster and other emergency relief. It is now embarking on perhaps its greatest ever challenge.

BGL CommunicationsCovid-19: How the aviation sector can support humanitarian aid relief