SPECIAL FOCUS: Dealing with disaster

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John McCurry and Will Waters report on the effects of hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria on the region’s air cargo sector, and the lessons to be learned

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the series of ‘superstorms’ that came in quick succession and ravaged several Caribbean islands and parts of the southeastern US in late August and September, played havoc with air cargo operations for several days and had a longer-term effect on wider logistics operations and supply chains in parts of the US mainland. The mainland US air freight sector came out of those hurricanes with no major long-term damage, thanks in part to some good contingency planning. But there are lessons to be learned and it is worthwhile examining how severely airports’ cargo infrastructure, business, and supply chains were affected, and how well or how quickly they recovered – and what worked best, in terms of resilience, contingency planning, and communications.

Meanwhile, the destruction and disruption in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria has had a more severe and long-lasting effect, including for key air freight customers within its important pharmaceuticals sector. And companies along the air cargo supply chain have responded with robust humanitarian efforts, many of which seem set to continue at least through the end of the year, especially in the case of Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Harvey reached the US mainland coastline on 25 August as a Category 4 hurricane, powering its way north of Corpus Christi with winds as high as 115 mph (185 km/h). By the time it reached Houston on 27 August, it had weakened to a tropical storm, but it still caused severe and widespread flooding across much of southeast Texas – including Houston itself, where some areas suffered more than 50 inches (125 centimetres) of rain, more than they would usually see in a year.

Houston Airport System, which manages George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport (IAH) and William P. Hobby Airport (HOU), says cargo and other operations at IAH were affected by Hurricane Harvey even before it made landfall, with large-scale flight cancellations and diversions of cargo flights. Cargo flights were diverted to Dallas Fort Worth (DFW), some as early as 25 August, although IAH shut down commercial operations officially on 27 August and did not resume limited commercial operations until 31 August. HOU’s airfield was closed on 27 August and resumed commercial operations on 1 September.

“Obviously, cargo operations were impacted during those timeframes,” says spokesman Bill Begley. Houston’s and the region’s ports and wider logistics operations were also closed for several days, with container vessels diverted to other US ports. Although the most severe effects were over within a week, local and regional logistics operations and supply chains were disrupted for several weeks − and many customers and logistics operators faced big increases in costs due to the contingency measures taken and rises in prices for the limited resources and services available, such as road feeder services.

Hurricane Irma

Then came Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade, which caused widespread destruction across the Caribbean and the southern US, leaving 55 people dead. Irma, at times a Category 5 hurricane, caused winds of up to 295km/h (185mph), although by the time it hit the Florida Keys it had weakened slightly to a Category 4 hurricane and later, when it reached mainland Florida on 10 September, to a Category 3 storm. Nevertheless, the destructive storm hit Florida with heavy rain and winds of around 100 mph (160km/h), forcing millions of people from their homes. It left huge areas of Florida without power for several days, caused severe flooding in and around Miami, and severely disrupted air freight and logistics activities in large parts of Florida, in particular.

All passenger and cargo flights at Miami International Airport (MIA) were cancelled from 9 to 11 September, and hundreds more flights were cancelled over the next few days. Passenger and cargo flights resumed at MIA on Tuesday 12 September, but only at about 30% of its average scheduled of flights. There were 158 passenger arrivals and 100 passenger departures, but a total of 526 flights were cancelled. Meanwhile, there were also 147 cargo-only flights, a decrease of around 25%, year over year. But cargo flights returned to normal on 13 September with 247 flights – an increase of more than 10%, year over year, as carriers attempted to clear cargo backlogs, although the number of passenger flights remained about 50% MIA’s normal schedule.

MIA spokesman Marc Henderson says the key lesson learned is that you cannot prepare enough beforehand. Reviewing plans, engaging stakeholders, conducting exercises, and stockpiling supplies prior to hurricane season is critical to being able to focus on the particular requirements and add flexibility as a known hurricane approaches, he notes.

“Having sufficient staff on hand to ‘ride out the storm’ and rapidly deploy after the storm to assess damage and make emergency repairs enabled a resumption of operations in an orderly and rapid manner,” he says. “Additionally, continuous communications on the status of the airport with the cargo carriers, shippers, and handlers proved critical in enabling a rapid resumption of operations.”

Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico

When the eye of Hurricane Irma, then a powerful Category 5 storm, skirted north of San Juan on 6 September, Puerto Rico experienced 100-mile-per-hour (160km/h) winds, but it avoided the worst of the storm’s effects. Four people died, and the storm cut off power to about two-thirds of the island’s electricity customers.

But the real damage came when Hurricane Maria made landfall on 20 September, with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour – almost a Category 5 hurricane and the first Category 4 cyclone to hit the island since 1932. It caused widespread destruction and disruption, knocking out power to the entire island and leaving much of the island’s population without access to clean water – a situation that persisted several weeks after the storm abated.

Chapman Freeborn Airchartering’s Fort Lauderdale-based US operations were involved with Puerto Rico relief efforts from the first day following Hurricane Maria.

“Demand for urgent humanitarian shipments has been very high throughout October, but we’re starting to see it slowly tail off,” said Alfie Arrowsmith, cargo charter manager, speaking near the end of October. “However, we’re now entering the second phase – with growing requirements for transporting infrastructure equipment as the rebuilding efforts begin.”

Arrowsmith said that from an operational point of view, this disaster response had closely followed the path of other emergency airlifts – for example, Haiti in 2010. He said bottlenecks quicklyoccur when the airport infrastructure is unable to handle the sudden surge in cargo arriving for onward distribution.

“We saw that with Haiti in 2010, and it’s been the same with the relief effort for Puerto Rico, where facilities were quickly overwhelmed. When there’s limited ramp space available, congestion is inevitable in the wake of disasters. Unloading and quickly turning around a B747-400F can be challenging at the best of times – but even more so when the airport infrastructure itself has been impacted by a disaster.”

Arrowsmith noted that one of the other key challenges he has observed with Puerto Rico is that it has happened at a time when charter aircraft availability is already extremely tight in the market. He said the general air cargo industry is seeing an unexpectedly strong peak season this year – and this has a knock-on effect on Puerto Rico because it has been difficult to secure immediate charter capacity. With scarce availability shippers have been booking up extra charter capacity as much as three to four weeks in advance – which hasn’t been the case in recent years.

“We’ve been assisting clients using a variety of aircraft types for Puerto Rico operations (B747-400Fs, MD-11Fs, AN-124 types etc.), but at times there was simply zero availability,” Arrowsmith said.

Latam Cargo was among those air freight carriers that assisted with the aid effort, activating its activated its ‘Humanitarian Airplane’ under the company’s social responsibility programme, but also assigning a cargo B767F to carry items collected by the ‘Another Joy Foundation’. On one day following the storm, it carried more than 40 tonnes of water, food, generators and medicine, among other relief items, from Miami to Puerto Rico. In early November, portions of the island remained without electricity, reported CEO Andrés Bianchi.

American Airlines Cargo (AA Cargo) has also been involved with humanitarian flights for all of the recent hurricanes, starting with Harvey. The airline sent relief equipment, food, water and other supplies to the Joint Reserve Base in at Ellington Field in Houston. American also sent relief flights to St. Thomas, St. Martin and to San Juan, Puerto Rico,  helping evacuate people out of Puerto Rico. “We were the first airline to arrive after Maria struck, and operated more than 150 flights in and out of San Juan to provide relief supplies,” says David Vance, VP of cargo operations. “We opened Operation Puerto Rico Strong, an employee programme that allowed employees to send relief packages and generators to loved ones at no charge.”

In normal times, American handles a lot of pharmaceutical traffic in and out of Puerto Rico. That was curtailed during the early aftermath of Maria because the San Juan airport’s infrastructure could not handle it and emphasis was on relief flights.

Pharma impact

DHL Global Forwarding says it was able to open its operations in Puerto Rico 36 hours after Hurricane Maria, noting that it was the only freight forwarder operating for almost two consecutive weeks after the hurricane. Javier Aleman, station manager and Thermonet manager for DHL Global Forwarding in Puerto Rico says that despite the challenges, the company’s business did not experience any negative impact after Hurricane Maria – thanks to effective contingency plans. “On the contrary, we have the ability to demonstrate how strong our business continuity management is,” he notes.

“The majority of the pharmaceuticals (companies) experienced operational disruptions, but we were able to provide services for the few pharmaceuticals (companies) operating after the hurricane, a situation that allowed us to handle significant volumes during the first weeks of the crisis and help the pharmaceutical industry move a great amount of product that was already manufactured.”

Aleman says the hurricanes caused no damage to DHL Global Forwarding’s infrastructure itself; none of DHL’s facilities, including its temperature-control areas and trucks, stopped operating due to the company’s business continuity management plan.

“We have been running 100% with our back-up generator and have been able to maintain enough diesel supplies without interrupting our operations at any time,” he says, adding that Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical companies expect to normalise their manufacturing processes by the end of the year.

Aleman says the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector is one of DHL’s most important business sectors in Puerto Rico, which is why the company opened a Life Science Competency Centre there in 2007. In 2017, DHL expanded its temperature control chambers and made improvements to its facilities, in order to provide enhanced service to this sector.

Humanitarian aid

Elsewhere, Delta Air Lines operated two relief flights to the Houston airports after Hurricane Harvey caused flooding across southeast Texas. A 737 delivered cots, clothing, paper goods, fresh and non-perishable foods, personal hygiene items, water and hot meals. Delta added dozens of flights on upsized aircraft to Florida and the Caribbean – as large as the Boeing 747, mostly reserved for international routes – to help evacuate thousands of people before Hurricane Irma hit. In all, Delta added more than 12,000 seats departing Florida and the Caribbean in the days before Irma hit.

Before Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, Delta operated the last flight in and out of the island, evacuating 173 customers when other airlines had abandoned attempts to fly into San Juan. Six Delta humanitarian flights flew to Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos, St. Thomas and St. Maarten, carrying Red Cross staff, volunteers and hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies including water, satellite phones, batteries, phone chargers and non-perishable food.

On one Tuesday in October, Delta operated three flights containing 33,000 pounds (15 tonnes) of water, generators, blood, food and other supplies to help people stuck at the San Juan airport and elsewhere in Puerto Rico. Delta’s cargo team also coordinated delivery of supplies to Puerto Rico donated by Delta business partners.

Team Worldwide

Meanwhile, one air freight forwarder that participated in humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico was Texas-based Team Worldwide. Working with a local ministry, it was able to raise funds to purchase components for 2,000 water filtration devices that convert contaminated water into something potable. The company also allowed humanitarian workers to use its San Juan facility to assemble the units