Humanitarian air services provide a lifeline for millions of people caught in humanitarian crises. In such situations, ensuring fast and safe access to the affected areas is crucial in saving lives. Planes and helicopters are often the only way to reach crises-affected areas that have no reliable roads, ports or commercial air strips, or that are rendered inaccessible by constraints. Humanitarian air services are used to transport humanitarian staff and aid, and to carry out medical and security evacuations, as needed. The European Union (EU) operates its own humanitarian air service, called ECHO Flight service, while also supporting other humanitarian air operations.
Natural disasters and man-made crises leave many people in need of humanitarian assistance. However, logistical challenges and poor infrastructure can hamper humanitarian operations. For instance, floods can leave communities stranded or people in need may be located in remote areas. Using road transport may also not be a viable option in some circumstances, such as following heavy rains or cyclones. Humanitarian air services help aid workers to access such hard-to-reach locations, bringing with them life-saving supplies.
Apart from practical aspects, there are security considerations that may make it difficult for humanitarian aid workers to reach people in need. Overland transport can be fraught with risks in conflict-ridden areas, putting the safety of humanitarian workers in the balance. Humanitarian flights are additionally used for the evacuation of aid workers for medical reasons or following security threats that require them to quickly leave the place where they are working.
Humanitarian organisations can use regular or charter flights for this purpose, but local airlines are not always reliable and safe, nor do they necessarily serve the locations where humanitarian assistance is needed. Efficiently managed, reliable and safe air services are the best option to ensure that humanitarian workers can continue with their life-saving work.
The EU runs its own humanitarian air service and organises ad-hoc air transport during serious emergencies as called for by the situation. In 2018, the EU’s financial contribution to humanitarian air services worldwide amounted to almost €39 million. In 2019, EU funding for humanitarian air services has reached around €25 million to date.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the EU operates a humanitarian air service fleet known as ECHO Flight, with hubs in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mali. This service is also used free of charge by humanitarian organisations that the EU works with. In 2018, ECHO Flight services transported 26,180 passengers and 230 tonnes of cargo to crisis-affected areas.
Following the 2018 Ebola virus disease outbreak in the DRC, ECHO flight services regularly transport humanitarian personnel and supplies to various Ebola hotspots that are otherwise difficult to access. More than 145 flights have been operated between May 2018 and the end of September 2019.
The EU also contributed towards the funding for the operation of a helicopter run by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) to facilitate humanitarian access to unsafe and hard-to-reach locations in the DRC. This is part of a wider financial support that the EU provides for non-profit humanitarian air services. In 2018, the EU contributed €24 million to UNHAS operations in Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen, and €750,000 to the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) operations in Afghanistan. In Zimbabwe, in 2019, the EU helped the World Food Programme (WFP) in running a helicopter service to deliver life-saving relief items to cut-off areas that were affected by tropical cyclone Idai.
The EU also finances ad-hoc flights to support humanitarian operations during emergencies. As an example, such flights are used to temporarily relocate humanitarian aid workers to a safer region within the same country if the security situation suddenly worsens at the place where they are operating. Furthermore, rapid medical evacuations can be organised for humanitarian workers to get them from their place of operation to main hospitals where they can be treated.