Podcast: Airlink CEO Explains Their Mission
How this nonprofit links airline resources to humanitarian organizations in crises worldwide.
Hello everyone and thank you for joining us for Window Seat Aviation Week Air Transport Podcast. I'm Air Transport World and Group Air Transport editor in chief, Karen Walker. Welcome on board.
And this week I'm in Washington DC and I'm delighted to have as my guest Steve Smith, who is the CEO at Airlink, which is a quite remarkable organization. Steve, welcome and thank you for joining me today.
Oh, thanks so much. Thanks for having me, Karen.
Airlink is a nonprofit organization working with airlines and logistics partners to transport relief workers and emergency supplies for reputable non-governmental organizations responding to rapid onset disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, and other humanitarian crises around the world. Airlink truly personifies and puts into action what the global air transport industry is all about, a force for good. So Steve, give us a few top line facts about Airlink, where are you based, how many partners do you have and how do you operate?
Sure, and thanks so much Karen, for having me and it's great to be here. I really want to thank Aviation Week and all of the various different organizations, The Routes Conference, CAPA, you guys are so supportive of us, it's really amazing. And you personally, Karen, so it's great to be here and talk.
So some top line numbers. Airlink was founded 12 years ago, 2010, around the Haiti earthquake. And since then we've helped over 23 million people. We've helped move almost 10,000 responders, expert responders and delivered near 4 million pounds of material aid. And as you said in the opener, Airlink is really a collaborative effort between airlines, freight forwarders, logistics companies and humanitarian organizations, NGOs, non-governmental organizations, to move their expert responders and aid. And we really do feel that it's a platform that turns adversity into hope for millions of people. You asked about number of partners. We work with over 130 nonprofit organizations, NGOs, about 50 carriers, and many, many more logistics organizations.
Fantastic. Those are really impressive numbers. I'm curious, how did you get into this role?
Sure. It's really a passion. I'm from the aviation sector, I've seen what the aviation sector can do and it's such an exciting sector. Now, this was an organization that was founded by ISTAT, the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading. It was really an opportunity to work with an organization that really married two key things, which is aviation, airlift, and also humanitarian aid and helping people around the world.
Just talk me through when there is a sudden catastrophe such as an earthquake or whatever, what's the single biggest priority in terms of humanitarian relief at an event like that? And what is it that you provide?
Sure, and that's a great question. I guess what I would start with is I really do think that where we are right now, we're faced with an unprecedented global situation. We have 56 active civil conflicts around the world. That's 56 wars. In Syria, Afghanistan, low level conflicts in Nigeria and Yemen. That's not including Ukraine. That would be an example of an interstate war. And that's driving right now all time high numbers, a hundred million people displaced around the world, by conflicts. And 55 million of those people are within their own borders. They're all sad numbers, but this is even sadder, 356 million people fall into the UN classification of three and four, which is just short of famine. So that means that 356 million people will go hungry tonight. Drivers are conflict, drivers are Covid, and the drivers are climate crisis.
And so the role that Airlink plays in logistics, and I really do think it's the untold story of humanitarian aid, is that whenever you see any ad campaigns or the entire sector raising money, 73% of all those funds go to some portion of the supply chain, 73%. And so we're talking about trucking, we're talking about other transportation logistics, warehousing. 73%.
And then a really sad additional statistic is that 60% of the things that arrive in the days and weeks after a disaster are often the wrong things or they're sent at the wrong time. How terrible.
So logistics is key. We're seeing this in Ukraine right now. We're seeing this and the knock on effects for Horn of Africa and the famine it's driving. Asia Pacific, all the Archipelago... Logistics is really core to humanitarian aid. I think that it's really exciting what we can do as an aviation sector, because we have unique capabilities and it's really the only way to move aid quickly across long distances.
And in terms of, I really do think that from a climate perspective, what we do is a near term solution to address the impact of climate change because all the people that are getting affected, we're flying in aid to help them.
But vetting is key. And you asked me what exactly we do, you really need KYC, know your customer, you really need to know which organizations you're working with because there are a lot of organizations out there that really want to help. We all want to help too. Some organizations maybe go around and make up lots of collections, but it's got to be the right stuff and we need to have a plan to get it there and distribute it into the region.
So an example would be every time there's a disaster or a humanitarian situation, we will act as a convener for NGOs, the humanitarian sector, which there I say does not work tremendously well together usually. And we'll pull those organizations together, identify and work with them to understand the key needs and help move either their responders and their aid. And that could be medical doctors, that could be telecommunications specialists to set up telecommunications infrastructure. It could be search and rescue teams with dogs. And then you're talking about material aid, which could be water, sanitation, hygiene, sometimes food and other medical supplies, lots of medical supply.
Amazing. So it's getting the right people and the right stuff there as quickly as possible, which of course an airline is the fastest way. You mentioned two aspects there that I'd like to just break down a little bit and talk a bit more. Obviously Covid and the pandemic. Can you just sum up for me some of the things that you were doing in the worst of the pandemic?
Yeah, sure. It's hard to think back so far. Airlink's organization, or I suppose our demand, was almost like the tide coming in. You had an ebb and flow of these massive spikes during an earthquake or a disaster and then you had a receding of the water or demand for help is certainly also in terms of airlift, but Covid raised a tide for everyone. And now I think it's still responding to Covid. We call it something different now. We call it health system strengthening because we also experienced this back in Ebola is that the entire healthcare systems of some of these places, a lot of places around the world, have been absolutely decimated. It's not just Covid that's hurting and killing people, it's everything else as well because they run out of supplies.
And so now we're in a race to support individuals and communities around the world that are really struggling and a lot of places don't have the same capabilities that the richer countries do. So it's really important that we do this.
And the other thing that you mentioned of course, was wars, particularly, again, I would like to hear a little bit more about what you're doing in Ukraine.
Sure, yeah. Ukraine, terrible situation. I think we're at about a thousand individual disaster responders, almost a thousand tons of relief aid that have either been flown in or moved in from various parts of Europe. I would compliment, as I always do, granted they're a main support base, but the aviation sector. The aviation sector continues to support us to move things in. And right now we have a regular air bridge going from Canada with Air Canada, American Airlines, United Airlines, always a major partner of ours all the time. And lots of other carriers have been helping, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways.
And now oftentimes we are always thinking about what makes the most sense in terms of where to move aid and how to move aid. And it's not just always airlift. So right now we are also, we've stood up a trucking operation within Europe that is moving food into various parts of Ukraine. And we also have some ocean containers that we've launched as well. Now, that's not what our name would suggest, Airlink, but it's not always the most important thing to do is move it by air. We can move it, it's a lot cheaper to move it over land or by the ocean. And so that's really important.
One of the things I would say is all of those relief items, all of this, those are, sometimes it dehumanizes it by saying a thousand responders, a thousand tons. There was an organization, just to give an example, we sent I think half a dozen individuals in from Israel. Israel Aid is the organization. They actually went into Suceava in Romania, helped organize and helped locals organize a warehouse and receiving relief aid from other agencies, UN as well. And it became a major artery into Southern Ukraine. So that's just six people. And now we've moved a thousand of those and they've all got their own different stories. And so that's really cool about Airlink. We have so many, such a varied impact and do it by leveraging the aviation sector and logistics.
That is quite amazing to hear really. And then of course, you said about climate change, the talk and what you read is that we're going to see more and more of these sorts of natural disasters, if that's earthquakes and hurricanes. We've already had some of those this year that have had a big impact in the Americas and in Canada. Were you involved in those? I think it was Fiona and Ian, were you involved in those?
Absolutely. Involved and continue to be involved. I believe we are now around about a hundred relief workers, perhaps even more, maybe that's under calling it, for hurricanes Ian. Also moving individuals within and up to Canada as well. The US. We're a 501(c)(3) organization nonprofit, and that's kind of where we were founded and that's a core area for us is the America's and North America. So our response is, we're always involved in all those responses, not so much on the cargo, more relief passengers for relief workers within the US because it's pretty straightforward to get things across the road most of the time. But those are really important events for us and we couldn't do it, again without the aviation sector and support from folks like you.
It's been a real pleasure getting to know you over the years and seeing the amazing things that Airlink does, but also how it's growing and how the need is always there. The need grows, but the way you are responding to it too, it's a fantastic side of the aviation industry that deserves to be heard more.
One last thing I'd just ask you, if anybody's listening to this, particularly if they are in the industry and would like to get involved, what's the best way to do that?
Sure. The first place to start would be our website, Airlinkflight.org. There are a couple ways to support it. Of course, we really rely on donations from individuals, from organizations and could really do with your support.
But at the same time, I think if you are, certainly within the aviation sector and not all of our support comes from the aviation sector, but a large proportion of it, and we're very proud of that. Also, be proud of the organization that the aviation sector that you are part of has built. And when you see whether it's things on LinkedIn or social media, whatever it is, share that message so that people can understand. That's really impactful for us to get our message out, because building our brand and telling the stories of what we're able to do is really important.
Thank you, Steve. So that's Airlinkflight.org, that's where you get a lot more information and just some of the photos, et cetera, of active work going on. So I recommend that.
Steve, it's always great to see you. Thank you so much for all your work and dedication and thank you to our listeners.
Make sure you listen to us each week by subscribing to the Window Seat podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. And thank you also to our producers Guy Ferneyhough and Michael Johnson. So until next week, this is Karen Walker, disembarking from Window Seat.