UN air bridge plan is ready but lacks funding to take off amid pandemic

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Shelter kits and food items being unloaded from a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service helicopter in Gorongosa, Mozambique. Photo by: WFP / Marco Frattini / CC BY

NEW YORK — The World Food Programme is ready to launch new regional air bridges to transport grounded cargo shipments and aid workers, but a lack of funding could stall next steps, according to Amer Daoudi, senior director of operation services at WFP.

“It’s becoming a huge challenge for humanitarian responders and health responders to reach the countries where we need to augment and scale up our operations.”

— Amer Daoudi, senior director of operation services, WFP

The novel coronavirus pandemic has grounded most commercial flights worldwide, creating massive declines in the traffic of cargo and passengers, including aid workers who are unable to leave their home or host countries, Daoudi said.

COVID-19 — a timeline of the coronavirus outbreak

Follow the latest developments on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We're trying to fill a massive gap. Many of our staff in Rome are on base, ready to go to the field. But it's virtually impossible to do. We try through different ways and means to get them there. But there are no commercial airlines,” Daoudi told Devex, speaking from his home in the Italian city.

“It’s becoming a huge challenge for humanitarian responders and health responders to reach the countries where we need to augment and scale up our operations globally for the entire community,” Daoudi continued.

United Nations leaders issued a global $2 billion COVID-19 humanitarian appeal at the end of March. During the appeal’s launch, U.N. chief António Guterres and agency heads detailed how a portion of this funding would support new air bridges. These are regional hubs that can accomodate chartered planes, offering an alternative to the commercial flights that the U.N. typically uses to transport goods and people.

Guterres on Wednesday called for an “unprecedented response” to COVID-19, defending the work of the World Health Organization shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to withhold funding this week.

So far, the U.N.’s emergency COVID-19 appeal has received $396.5 million, or 19% of the requested funding. WFP has received an additional $20 million from the $350 million that the Central Emergency Response Fund issued to jump-start the appeal, according to Daoudi.

WFP is now drawing from its own funding to sustain its work and, to support the air bridges now, is asking donors to front-load a quarter of the funding they planned to give to WFP later in the year.

“If there is no commercial alternative and the demand is there, we will establish the service, whether it is cargo or passenger,” Daoudi said.

WFP currently operates six regional transport hubs in Italy, Ghana, Malaysia, Panama, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. This week, demands for humanitarian aid and health supplies across multiple countries translated to as many as 1,500 flights on chartered cargo planes, Daoudi said.

“The plan is flexible. We can stand it up quickly. We can stand it down immediately, as quickly as needed at the moment,” Daoudi said. “Funding is something that is hampering us from standing up. We have not seen the kind of funding we usually expect when we have a regional or a country-specific crisis.”

WFP aims to establish new central transport hubs in China, Europe, and the U.S., as well as additional regional “staging areas” for transportation in Central America, West Africa, southern Africa, eastern Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Indonesia. WFP has access to more than 100 chartered planes, but plane rental prices have increased in recent weeks, according to Daoudi, who stressed the urgency of securing them soon for long-term rental.

The air bridges and planes would be used across the U.N. system, including for medical evacuations.

“You can imagine how much need there is. But if we don't get the resources, that cargo is going to get stuck. And to deliver the cargo? That's one thing. But you need the human element. It goes hand in hand,” he said.

WFP is also developing various contingency plans that could become necessary if travel is further restricted — ones that consider alternate boat ports if a major port closes, for example.

The uncertainty of the health pandemic’s duration and severity is causing Daoudi to lose sleep, he said, as WFP tries to sustain its operations over the next few months.

“We have a lot of contingencies. We are working in the most unpredictable environment now with COVID-19. Things will go wrong. We will face challenges,” Daoudi said. “Some of these we have taken into account in our planning. Some will catch us on the spot. We will have to deal with situations or challenges as they arise. But there is no perfect plan for us.”

Visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for news, job opportunities, and funding insights.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.