Nine pallets of caps, gowns, boots, and masks are sitting at the JFK airport in New York City awaiting the next available flight to West Africa. This might appear to be a routine shipment delay, but it is not. The supplies are needed by doctors in the fight against the deadly Ebola virus, and the holdup highlights a worrying gap in the humanitarian supply chain.
The personal protective equipment (PPE) – shipped by our team of doctors and logisticians in Boston – is destined for the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in Liberia, which will then distribute supplies to locations at the front lines of the health crisis such as JFK Memorial Hospital in Monrovia. PPE is essential in the fight against the Ebola virus, protecting the brave doctors and nurses who continue to diagnose and treat patients every day at their own peril.
Our “freight forwarder” collected the pallets on August 18 for consolidated air freight service, which normally means airport-to-airport delivery within three to five days using space available on commercial (passenger) airlines or dedicated cargo flights to the destination. By consolidating cargo from various shippers, freight forwarders reduce the cost of air shipment significantly from express services, which is important when shipping multiple pallets.
And here is the rub. In spite of repeated statements from the World Health Organization (WHO) advising against travel bans to and from affected countries, commercial airlines have suspended service. Clearly this constrains the ability for the international humanitarian community to send aid workers. But due to the role passenger flights play in providing air cargo capacity, these travel restrictions are effectively quarantining critical medical supplies outside Ebola-affected regions.
As of August 25, with our pallets still sitting at JFK airport, there are only two options remaining for commercial air service to Liberia: Royal Air Maroc (with service three times per week from Casablanca) and Delta (which is halting service August 31). Most of the flights to Liberia, and their air cargo capacity, were suspended:
- Arik Air: Banned flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone beginning July 28. Flights to Guinea are continuing, with passengers screened for symptoms.
- Asky Airlines: Stopped flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone on July 29.
- British Air: All routes suspended to Sierra Leone and Liberia on August 5.
- Gambia Bird: Suspended routes to Sierra Leone and Liberia on August 15.
- Kenya Airways: Suspended commercial flights to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone on August 19.
- Brussels Airlines: Cancelled flights to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia beginning August 23.
Humanitarian aid organizations, familiar with responding to disasters where normal air service is disrupted, are chartering flights to cover the gap in air service. However, even humanitarian flights are subject to travel bans, as Senegal recently demonstrated by canceling UN Humanitarian Air Service flights to Ebola-affected countries.
Flying cargo in the space unused by passenger luggage (especially as baggage fees encourage a shift to carry-ons) has long been an efficient option for time-sensitive freight. Travel bans, which at face value seem to prevent the spread of disease, actually constrain the crucial human and material resources required to manage the Ebola outbreak.
Fortunately while writing this blog entry, news broke that Brussels Airlines is resuming flights to Liberia. Let’s hope this is a trend, reconnecting health workers in West Africa with global stocks of critical supplies. Maybe soon our nine pallets will be moving rapidly from airside at JFK airport to patient-side at JFK hospital.
 Pallets of critical medical supplies were assembled and shipped by a team from Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UUMS), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Doctors at BCH and UMMS have been working in Liberia for over seven years developing training programs for physicians and nurses. During this crisis, these doctors are supporting their Liberian colleagues by gathering in-kind donations from medical suppliers and transporting them using crowdsourced funds with logistical support from the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab.