From missiles to baby formula, airlines provide vital airlift for US government

A military flatbed truck delivers missiles to load on a a white United Airlines jet with the cargo door open.

The Biden administration’s emergency airlift to expedite imports of overseas baby formula amid a widespread domestic shortage is the latest example of the U.S. government employing commercial cargo and passenger airlines to help solve a logistics crisis.

Since the start of the COVID pandemic in early 2020, the Trump and Biden administrations have leaned on these air logistics providers at least five times to deliver equipment, supplies and people for public health and national security needs. 

In some cases, federal agencies have leveraged existing Defense Department contract vehicles to hire commercial carriers from a preset roster. Other times, new programs were started. The flights are accessed on a charter basis and sometimes as part of regularly scheduled services. Several airlines participated in more than one airlift. 

Here’s a list of the auxiliary government cargo flights conducted by airlines the past two years:

Project Airbridge

Commercial freighters carried out more than 250 missions during a three-month period in the first half of 2020 to expedite the delivery of personal protective equipment and other critical health care supplies for combating COVID from international locations to distributors around the United States. 

Under Project Airbridge, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, partnering with the Department of Health and Human Services, purchased air transportation on behalf of private health care distributors to reduce typical air shipping delays. After arriving at airports, materials were deconsolidated at local warehouses and delivered by truck to facilities in COVID hot spots identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to the distributors’ traditional clients. Hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes were the primary recipients. 

Participating carriers included Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW), FedEx (NYSE: FDX), National Airlines, UPS (NYSE: UPS) and Antonov Airlines, a Ukrainian operator of super jumbo cargo jets that is now operating out of Germany after Russia invaded its home country.

Operation Warp Speed

The federal government in 2020 launched Operation Warp Speed to accelerate the development and distribution of new COVID-19 vaccines. The first vaccines from Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and Moderna were shipped in mid-December by FedEx and UPS. They picked up vaccine shipments with tractor trailers and took them to regional airports to catch flights to their package hubs in Memphis, Tennessee, (FedEx) and Louisville, Kentucky, where they were sorted and put on outbound planes across the country. The express carriers were the logistics providers for Pfizer and McKesson Corp., the giant health care distributor selected by the U.S. government to manage logistics for the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. 

At least three major U.S. airlines — United (NASDAQ: UAL), American (NASDAQ: AAL) and Delta (NYSE: DAL) — worked as subcontractors to FedEx and UPS carrying vaccines in the lower decks of passenger aircraft. 

Afghanistan evacuation

The Defense Department activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) and compelled six airlines to help with the evacuation of U.S. citizens and other at-risk refugees from Afghanistan in August 2021. The carriers likely would have participated voluntarily, but the formal procedure guaranteed the government would get all the aircraft it needed in the desired time frame.

U.S. Transportation Command drafted 18 widebody aircraft for the mission from Atlas Air, Air Transport Services Group (NASDAQ: ATSG), American, Delta, United and Hawaiian Airlines (NASDAQ: HA). The commercial aircraft picked up evacuees from staging bases outside Afghanistan and took them to locations in Europe and the U.S. 

Under CRAF, airlines contractually commit to supplement military air transport of troops and equipment during wartime and other crises. To encourage carriers to participate, only CRAF partners can bid on government airlift contracts issued through the DoD during peacetime. Airlines must maintain a minimum commitment of 30% of their CRAF-capable passenger fleet and 15% of their CRAF-capable cargo fleet to participate in international military business.

Arming Ukraine

Atlas Air, Kalitta Air and National Airlines have flown multiple missions in support of the U.S. military’s massive effort to supply Ukraine with defensive armaments and supplies for resisting Russia’s invasion. Operating under existing contracts with the Defense Department, the three cargo airlines are carrying ammunition for 155mm howitzers, Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems, pistols, body armor and other equipment from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Poland.

National Airlines was busy flying Javelin missiles to Poland for Ukraine in the days and weeks leading up to Russia’s attack on Feb. 24. The other carriers were observed making deliveries after the war started. 

United Airlines also delivered Javelin missiles directly to Ukraine in 2020 as part of normal military aid provided by the U.S., according to photos in a Defense Department photo gallery. United at the time was operating cargo-only passenger aircraft while most passenger flights were suspended because of the pandemic.

Operation Fly Formula

President Joe Biden launched the airlift of formula from overseas in May to temporarily plug the gap in domestic production caused by supply chain disruptions and the three-month closure of Abbott Laboratories’ main facility in Sturgis, Michigan, because of unsanitary conditions. The departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture are coordinating with manufacturers to identify available overseas stocks that meet U.S. safety standards, while the Department of Defense is using existing contracts with the commercial sector to arrange air transport.

FedEx has made two deliveries under Operation Fly Formula using its status as a CRAF carrier. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are donating space on passenger aircraft for shipments organized by the Department of Health and Human Services and overseas formula makers. More airlines are likely to accept government requests to make formula deliveries in the coming days. 

There are nine Operation Fly Formula flights scheduled to arrive this week, eight of them operated by United Airlines to Dulles International Airport in Virginia with formula produced in the United Kingdom.

More FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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