Mission to Myanmar
The responsibility for transhipping aid and other vital supplies and equipment rests all too often on the shoulders of a few vastly experienced charter operators.
When a natural disaster of the type that struck both China and Burma during May occurs, a number of wholly different organisations will all spring into action.
Government bodies, diplomats, aid agencies and suppliers each have a need to focus on their own skills and requirements - for example, negotiation and sourcing personnel, equipment and aid - but they all, to greater or lesser extents, rely on the less-lauded yet nevertheless crucial role of the international charter airfreight operator.
Gone are the days when agencies would pick up the phone to a charter provider who would simply source a plane and fly it to a chosen destination. Today's companies can provide a far more valuable and hassle-free service that leaves humanitarian bodies free to carry out their crucial work without being encumbered by the vagaries of transport and logistics.
Such operators will arrange equipment pick-up, trucking, customs documentation and overflights permissions, and even have agents on the ground liaising with the offloading team, meaning substantially fewer headaches for the body chartering the flight.
Of course, it's when a disaster befalls a particularly remote or inaccessible area that the organisation and skill of an operator can really come into play.
One such operator is Chapman Freeborn, which has been providing aviations solutions globally for 35 years, and has offices in Dubai and Sharjah.
We're geared up to react quickly in the event of any kind of disaster and as soon as you hear something on the news, while it's sad to say it, you are immediately aware that you are likely to be very busy," says Eliska Hill, the general manager at Chapman Freeborn's Dubai office.
When a disaster hits, the relief agencies will come to us. But what we're initially already doing is obtaining prices for operators and the first thing we will tend to look for is the nearest place we will be able to land aircraft," she continues.
In the case of the Burmese cyclone, the airport in Rangoon is fortunately relatively close to the disaster that hit the Irrawaddy delta, although political constraints were of course a greater barrier.
The Chapman Freeborn Group coordinated several flights for Burma from Dubai, mainly for aid agencies, and, as is normal with such disasters, the operator looks set to be in the thick of the action in South-East Asia for some time to come.
"We make all the arrangements to pick up the cargo from the storage warehouse, and that's a huge benefit for the client - other brokers may not have those resources and might simply source the aircraft," explains Hill.
We know where the relief is kept and we know who's going to start asking for help. Aid agencies simply don't have the time or the manpower to take care of the other issues; all they want to worry about is what will actually go on the aircraft," she adds.
With phones beginning to ring off the hook as the nature of the destruction slowly became apparent, the Dubai and Sharjah offices' cargo operators worked solidly through the first weekend in order to facilitate the requests from the aid agencies.
The benefit of the Chapman Freeborn Group network allows us huge resources in terms of operators and provides us with a number of options; if, for example, an aircraft is flying to Rangoon from Europe, it could also pick up a load from, say, Kuala Lumpur on the way back, thus saving us the cost of having to position other aircraft and allowing us to quote at a more competitive rate than the local operators," Hill remarks.
While it is clear that no company wishes to be seen as profiting from a crisis, there is certainly a job that must be done in terms of man hours and the time spent in coordinating humanitarian activities.
A further problem faced by Chapman Freeborn in extending flights to Burma was the overflights permissions required by India. Any airdrop capability plane, such as an Ilyushin 76, flying across Indian airspace - i.e. from Europe to Burma - is required to land in India first, regardless of its destination.
Even regular cargo flights can still become an issue, and as Chapman Freeborn retains a permanent office in Delhi, it is on standby to speed up applications in order to aid the disaster response.
Onsite information is also key. "We had an agent in place in Rangoon armed with a laptop and a mobile phone who could coordinate aircraft movements and handling," says Hill.
For example, we recently heard that there was an issue with fuel - not the lack of it - but the fact that they were unable to pump it. That sort of information is invaluable.
Furthermore, the initial lack of a high loader at Rangoon Airport meant that palletised aircraft such as the A300 and the DC8 needed to be unloaded by hand, which added hours onto the crew schedule.
For aircraft flying a lengthy sector from Europe, the logistics naturally become more convoluted. "They need to know where they can stop en-route for fuel, what route to fly, and whether it will take a long time to offload - crucial, as the crew may then run out of duty hours," observes Hill.
So why is Dubai playing such a crucial part in Chapman Freeborn's operations? It seems that the tipping point for the UAE offices came in 2003, with the US-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent growth of operations into Iraq and Afghanistan, which obviously provided charter companies with increased business. However, it seems that the move to the UAE was largely inevitable in any event.
Dubai has an ideal strategic position and an open skies agreement that allows greater freedom of operation, plus it is very quick with landing permits," Hill explains.
Add these benefits to the fact that the Dubai-based International Humanitarian City keeps a significant number of aid stockpiles, and it becomes clear why the UAE provides such a key hub for aid agencies
However, the region can pose some difficulties, although these are not insurmountable. While other operators in other countries can get freight into the air faster and can feasibly launch operations overnight, the customs regime in the UAE does to a degree slow down this process.
It does take time here - you need a customs bond and you need to provide 5% of the value of the goods to export from the region," remarks Hill.
"It doesn't hinder us, but it certainly slows down procedures".
But humanitarian aid only makes up a small part of Chapman Freeborn's worldwide payload. Alongside out-of-gauge equipment, and urgent high-value goods, frequent requests for assistance come from the oil and gas sector, where the operator freights outsize equipment to remote areas.
It has also proved invaluable in emergency situations as well: "if there is an emergency at an oil rig and the company is losing, say, a quarter of a million dollars a day, it's a drop in the ocean to request an aircraft charter to carry the equipment that will resolve the situation - and that's when we come into our own," explains Hill.
Stranger requests have included a contract for the transit of monkey heads to Africa - which was politely declined, and Chapman Freeborn also recently arranged a charter for the transport of 73 horses from the Netherlands to Qatar and back, which is believed to be one of the largest flights of show-jumping horses ever carried out worldwide.
Moreover, during May, the company also transported five giant transformers to the Afghan capital, Kabul, as part of ongoing efforts to provide the city's residents with a regular supply of electricity. The airlift of the transformers, which weighed between 64 and 90 tonnes, was the heaviest freight flight ever undertaken from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi.
With a substantial network in the Middle East, Chapman Freeborn is looking to grow its business in the region and develop Dubai as a broking hub. "Anything that can't go on scheduled flights quickly, especially to remote or difficult-to-reach destinations, we can handle from here," says Hill.
"Given the advantages of Dubai as a location, plus the added benefits the new airport will bring when it eventually opens, Chapman Freeborn's future in the Middle East is looking exceptionally bright," she concludes.
• Specialises in moving urgent cargo, heavy and outsize pieces, high-value goods, dangerous freight and AOG parts
• Focuses on niche industries such as telecommunications, defence, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, automotives, perishables, aerospace, livestock and humanitarian assistance
• Website address: http://www.chapman-freeborn.com
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