Cargo Carriers Support U.S. Airlift, Keep Supply Lines Open

A UPS Boeing 747-8F delivers medical supplies during FEMA airlift.
Credit: UPS

Atlas Air Worldwide and UPS are participating in a White House-led airlift to deliver critical medical supplies from other countries to the U.S. as cargo airlines ramped up their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Atlas Air operated the first flight under Project Airbridge, a coordinated effort with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), on March 29 delivering critical medical supplies from Shanghai to JFK International Airport in New York. The Atlas Boeing 747 freighter carried 130,000 N95 respirator masks; 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns; 10.3 million gloves; and 70,000 thermometers. 

Plans called for distributing the supplies primarily to hospitals in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with the remainder designated for nursing homes in the region, according to FEMA.

In an April 3 release, Atlas Air said it flew two additional flights under Project Airbridge, carrying medical personal protective equipment (PPE) to Chicago from China on March 30 and from Malaysia on April 1.

Atlas Air said it operated a separate mission for the Frontline Responders Fund organized by trade platform on April 2, carrying 65 tons of PPE from Shanghai for the San Francisco Bay area.

“Air cargo is essential to the global fight against coronavirus, and we are proud to support the efforts of companies and agencies across the public and private sectors to deliver life-saving supplies to where they are needed the most,” Atlas Air Worldwide president and CEO John Dietrich said. “We thank our crews and ground staff for their extraordinary commitment in the operations of these relief missions.”

UPS said it will manage and broker 25 charter flights over a two-week period under Project Airbridge to transport three million pounds of PPE. Shipments are originating in China, Malaysia, Honduras and other countries.

The cargo carrier said it is working with Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health and other healthcare distributors, providing air freight brokerage services on third-party as well as UPS-owned aircraft to support the effort.

On April 4, UPS opened a new 450,000 sq. ft. distribution center with dedicated space for FEMA. The facility is located within miles of UPS Worldport, the company’s air hub in Louisville, Kentucky.

“In addition to managing and brokering air freight flights, UPS is ramping up around-the-clock operations to provide receipt of PPE and kitting for distribution to hospitals and hot spots around the country,” UPS chairman and CEO David Abney said. “We are bringing the full power of our integrated global logistics network to bear to assist FEMA in the pandemic fight.”

Operating under an essential services exemption, FedEx pilots represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) are keeping supply lines open and “continue to fly into areas where they are potentially exposed to health risks associated with the virus,” the pilots’ union said April 6.

“FedEx pilots are at times faced with challenges such as limited to no food options, required confinement in hotel rooms for days, fears of quarantine in locations around the globe, invasive medical testing protocols in various countries, and the potential inability to come home to their family and community due to fears of passing on the virus and self-quarantine requirements,” the ALPA said.

FedEx announced on March 23 that it had established a special operation to help the U.S. government move COVID-19 test specimens from 50 drive-through testing centers at retail locations in 12 states. The FEMA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-led mission, which includes 28 dedicated flight legs, supports quick processing of test specimens.


Bill Carey

Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.