Airlines, governments and 3PLs get creative with emergency airlifts

The tail lifted on a massive Antonov freighter.

Large numbers of dedicated freighters are descending on China to pick up face masks and other equipment being made in large quantities after the country was able to stop the spread of COVID-19 and reopen factories. No longer requiring as much equipment for its own use, China is churning out millions of pieces of personal protective equipment and other medical items. 

Charter flights organized by governments and private groups to carry critical medical supplies and other material to areas experiencing high caseloads of COVID-19 are proliferating. In some cases, governments have created airborne supply lines to shuttle huge amounts of supplies to healthcare workers, patients and others with essential jobs who require protection from infection.

After first renting entire airplanes for on-demand cargo transport in response to the shortage in airfreight capacity and widespread suspension of passenger flights, some airlines are now setting up regularly scheduled cargo operations.

On March 30, Delta Air Lines [NYSE: DAL] announced it has started cargo service between Shanghai and Detroit three times per week using Airbus A350-900 aircraft, able to carry 49 tons, to deliver urgent medical supplies. 

Once the supplies arrive in Detroit, they will be transferred to domestic passenger flights and shipped to cities around the U.S. Delta said it will evaluate increasing frequency to daily flights or open additional U.S. gateways depending on demand. 

Detroit is considered by U.S. health authorities as a hotspot for the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

Delta was one of the first passenger carriers to offer its planes to logistics companies on a charter basis.

Similarly, Qatar Airways announced on March 30 that it is now running regular cargo routes between Doha and six cities in China using widebody passenger planes. 

U.S. and French airlifts

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is contracting with private carriers to airlift large quantities of critical supplies to strategically located airports for distribution to nearby cities and states. Atlas Air has flown the first two sections of the mission, dubbed Project Airbridge, delivering medical shipments to New York and Chicago. 

A third delivery scheduled for today at an undisclosed Ohio airport has been delayed, a FEMA spokeswoman told FreightWaves.

The French government has also launched its own version of Project Airbridge, creating an airborne pipeline to move large amounts of equipment from China to France. The French Ministry of Solidarity and Health has hired third-party logistics provider Geodis to organize the flights.

Geodis said Tuesday it has chartered two massive Antonov-124 aircraft operated by Moscow-based Volga-Dnepr to make 16 flights in April to supply millions of masks from China. It said the schedule could be extended into May.

The first flight from Shenzhen containing 8.5 million masks arrived in Paris. A second flight is scheduled later this week carrying 13 million more masks.

The French government is working to deliver one billion masks over the next 14 weeks. 

Separately, Geodis has leased aircraft from an all-cargo carrier to provide roundtrip charter flights between Chicago and Amsterdam four times per week to meet regular private sector needs.

German logistics provider Dascher said its Mexico subsidiary has donated air transport of three million surgical and respiratory masks. The Boeing 787-9 charter flight flew last week from Mexico City to Frankfurt and then Dascher delivered the equipment through its road network.

Dascher, like Geodis, is also essentially running a private airline by chartering aircraft to fly between Europe and Asia. It has also set up an air bridge between the U.S., Latin America and Frankfurt for deliveries to Shanghai. Dascher said it is chartering 747s and integrating them into the rotation of flights connecting in Shanghai.

Meanwhile, European aircraft manufacturer Airbus is working with Bolloré Logistics to expedite the distribution of two million face masks to health workers in France and Spain. Airbus last week operated one of its own A330-800 passenger aircraft to Tianjin, China, to collect the shipment, and then flew back to Toulouse, France. Some of the shipment was broken down and dispatched to facilities in France, while the remaining load was put on new pallets and onto an Airbus A400M, a four-engine turboprop military aircraft, and flown to Getafe, Spain. 

Florida-based National Airlines said it recently operated a relief mission to Mumbai, India, with one of its Boeing 747-400 freighters. Last week India closed its borders to contain the spread of the deadly virus. National Airlines is also under contract to transport pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies from India, Europe and China to the U.S. 

3PLs handle emergency distribution

Third-party logistics providers (3PLs) are doing more than simply arranging charter flights for governments, aid organizations and private companies involved in the COVID-19 response.

Geodis is working with the French government to distribute supplies within France. 

Fedex Express and UPS are delivering test-kit specimens overnight to laboratories around the U.S. on behalf of the U.S. government. UPS is also helping the federal and state governments set up drive-up testing sites and participating in Project Airbridge.

As part of the airlift collaboration, FEMA will gain access to UPS’s huge Worldport hub in Louisville, Kentucky, for temporary staging of critical shipments from overseas, according to UPS [NYSE: UPS]. The integrated logistics giant and express carrier is also helping healthcare distributor Henry Schein Inc. distribute and track delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to medical professionals and drive-through test facilities as it gets flown in. UPS is also delivering PPE shipments for McKesson, another healthcare distributor, to pop-up testing sites and military bases where military members and civilians returning from overseas are required to quarantine. And UPS is using its air and ground network to deliver  tens of thousands of test kits and related supplies each week for several manufacturers, including DuPont.

CEVA Logistics, now owned by ocean container line CMA CGM, is using its multi-modal capabilities to overcome supply chain bottlenecks for critical shipments. It said it is handling distribution for one of the medical technology companies appointed by the U.S. government to manufacture and supply COVID-19 test kits. A combination of expedited ground, airfreight and final-mile delivery are being used to get the kits to New Jersey, Seattle, Chicago and other areas with high demand. 

CEVA said it took charge of the import process, customs clearance and same-day delivery of one million masks donated by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to the Spanish health service. In southeast England, CEVA will handle the assembly and delivery to hospitals of visors that will be made on 3D printers. A new facility under construction by partner businesses will host 200 to 250 3D printers.