FEMA expands coronavirus relief flights to more airports

Ground workers unload boxes through aircraft doors.

Project Airbridge, the airlift of personal protective equipment and medical supplies coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is touching more airports and even using passenger aircraft as the flow of inbound relief supplies continues to increase.

In recent days, cargo flights have landed at Pittsburgh International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), according to FEMA and the airport authorities. Previously, major airports around the country have been the primary gateways for the supply mission, but flights have also touched down at less-known, but cargo-friendly airports such as Rockford, near Chicago, and Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus, Ohio.

Pittsburgh International Airport, which is also less congested during normal times than big hubs, has handled two FEMA flights operated by National Airlines. The charter operator has been using Boeing 747-400 all-cargo planes for Project Airbridge flights, but arrived on Saturday, April 25, with one of its Boeing 757 passenger jets carrying nearly 150,000 N95 masks. Boxes of material were carried in the passenger cabin, as well as the lower cargo hold.

National Airlines’ officials say the passenger jet was deployed because its freighters are in such high demand. Repurposing passenger planes for cargo service is a growing industry trend driven by the massive reduction in passenger operations due to coronavirus concerns, but it’s the first time a passenger plane has been used for a special cargo flight in the FEMA program.

The masks  were offloaded and placed on a truck just over an hour after landing. Pittsburgh Airport officials say speed is one of the airport’s calling cards in normal times because cargo flights can get more priority than at some big airports.

A shipment of more than four million 3M respirators arrived at BWI airport last week.

Project Airbridge began a month ago a part of a broader supply chain initiative to accelerate delivery of scarce medical supplies purchased overseas by private companies for delivery to hospitals, nursing homes and other high-risk facilities in outbreak regions. Materials are deconsolidated at local warehouses and delivered around the country by large healthcare distributors such as Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp.

As of April 27, Project Airbridge has completed 89 flights with an additional 21 scheduled or in transit, according to FEMA. Ten flights arrived, or were scheduled to arrive, on Monday and Tuesday, April 27 and 28,  in Chicago and Los Angeles. So far the airlift has transported:

  • More than 768,000 N-95 masks
  • More than 746 million gloves
  • More than 71.5 million surgical masks
  • More than 10 million surgical gowns
  • Nearly 2.1 million thermometers
  • More than 562,000 face shields