Flight Plan

How to get the airport ready for disaster relief

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on August 21, 2018

Tonnes of relief goods land up in the wake of a catastrophe. How do we control what reaches whom? Ashwini Phadnis shares insights from a recent workshop

The timing is so uncanny it seems providential.

A request made two years ago by the Airports Authority of India to DHL bore fruit in early August when a joint initiative by DHL, UNDP and AAI started the “Train the Facilitator – Get Airport Ready for Disaster (TtF-GARD)” programme at Kozhikode.

India is the first country globally where this programme is being launched. Given the rain and floods in Kerala, which struck the State days after the training, the workshop has come at a most opportune moment.

GARD was developed by the Deutsche Post DHL group in collaboration with UNDP with the aim of preparing airports in disaster-prone areas to handle the surge of relief goods coming in after a natural disaster. To date, GARD workshops have been held at more than 40 airports across the world. However, this was the first time that a workshop was held to train GARD facilitators.

Speaking to BusinessLine after the rain and floods hit Kerala, Chris Weeks, Director, Humanitarian Affairs, DHL Express and Lead Trainer for the TtF-GARD programme, points out that to run effective cargo relief operations in Kerala, what is needed is enough space, manpower, instructions, supplies and distribution channels.

Handling the immediate situation

“You need a hub that can receive, store temporarily and dispatch cargo. In bad weather this needs to be covered, hence GARD looks for a hangar or something similar that can be requisitioned for a month or so. The location needs to be near the disaster zone but not so near that it becomes affected. It should, however, be suitable for resupply by air and road and for outbound trucks and helicopters,” he says.

Besides, having proper equipment like forklifts and pallet jacks will also help as they can do the work of several people, says Weeks. Distributing aid that has come in appropriately is equally important. It is no good if large quantities of one item come to one place. “Beneficiaries will need a mixture of goods, some shelter, some food and water, some bedding, some non-food items like cooking stuff. This means the hub needs some direction on what goes where. NGOs are usually good at final-mile distribution. They make sure goods get distributed fairly and safely,” he adds.

Training the facilitators

The TtF workshop in Kerala was meant to train an initial group which will then go around and train people in other airports in India so they are in a better position to handle the flow of assistance after a calamity. This is significant for a country like India as a majority of its 100 operational airports are prone to natural disasters. The programme was attended by AAI staffers of various departments, including fire-fighters.


The idea of preparing airports after a disaster germinated during the 2001 Bhuj earthquake. At that time, Indian businesspeople were in Davos attending the World Economic Forum meet.

That light bulb moment

“Everyone attending that meeting wanted to do something but soon realised that they had little idea on how to go about organising the movement of relief material. The then CEO of DHL was at the meeting and he agreed to help organise logistics,” recalls Weeks, who saw the notice which the CEO had put up and decided to apply. The fact that Weeks had done a course in Development Economics at the University of Exeter in the UK helped. However, according to Weeks, it was a picture that a colleague sent, of relief material stacked at Bam airport in Iran, which proved to be the “light bulb moment” for him.

The picture showed an IL 76 aircraft, which is capable of carrying around 40 tonnes of cargo, standing next to a huge amount of cargo lying haphazardly on a truck. What the picture did not show was that some of the relief material broke when it fell off the truck and because there was nothing to hold the relief cargo, a lot of it was blown away when the aircraft started its engines for its flight back. “I thought that instead of flying more aircraft in, we should be helping on the ground so the aircraft can keep coming. From this we set up a volunteer force of people in the company who were trained to help out at an airport after a disaster,” he says. Today this voluntary force has over 700 workers.

Small is big

According to Weeks, addressing small things can make a big difference. Like having wooden pallets so that aid assistance taken off the aircraft can be moved easily to where it will be stored rather than being haphazardly left on the runway. This will allow another aircraft to park and offload more aid.

Or giving those manning the airport two SIM cards provided by different service operators so that, if one network is down, the other network can be used to get in touch with the outside world and keep the airport up and running to receive aid. People working in the airport also need to be told where the fuse junction box is located so that they can restore power if it is lost after floods.

Kim Melville, Senior Director, Global Airside and Standards, DHL Express, says the programme adapts to the countries it goes to. “Where there are political sensitivities we take out items or include them. What we will be concerned about is that we do not lose the context and purpose of the training and we do not lose that momentum,” he says.

This Correspondent attended the inaugural workshop at the invitation of DHL, UNDP and AAI

Published on August 21, 2018

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