Diffa airport in the early hours of a relatively mild but dusty day. People with backpacks are entering a white aircraft. They are mainly aid workers, from UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Most of them have been here to serve people displaced by the crisis that has rocked the Lake Chad Basin countries. Their organizations provide shelter, water, healthcare, food and other forms of assistance.
The blue logos with ‘WFP’ stamped on the plane indicate that it is a flight operated by the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) managed by the World Food Programme (WFP). The pilots are in the cockpit, preparing for take-off, as they get a message over the radio.
“We have an aid worker in Agadez who is critically ill. You would have to evacuate him to Niamey today,” says the UNHAS officer based in Niamey. The pilots acknowledge receipt of the message. They must start thinking of how they would adapt this plane to provide a medical evacuation. It’s not the sort of thing crews on a regular commercial flight must contend with all the time. This is UNHAS; it is different.
But first the crew must fly to Zinder. Yes, you read it correctly: Zinder and not Agadez. To be cost efficient as well as effective, UNHAS — whose operations are mostly funded by donations from partners such as the European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department (ECHO) European — tends to operate flights from one stop to another.
Figuring out a flight rotation is a difficult equation with many variables. In Niger, airports are few and far apart — with fuel only available at some. Air traffic is low but unexpected situations like dust winds or heavy dust storms or airport closures could mean unscheduled changes of flight plans. Flights are not always direct.
This crew has to fly to Zinder to refuel the aircraft to cover the entire 1,100 km journey to Niamey. During the flight to Zinder they consider how they would manage to transport passengers as well as a patient.
“The stretch between Zinder and Niamey is almost full, you already have 30 passengers for Niamey,” says the UNHAS officer. The aircraft crew immediately understands the dilemma facing it. To undertake the emergency medical evacuation, the crew will have to install a stretcher for the patient. This requires a four-seat row, effectively reducing the capacity to 29.
Airlines usually resort to handing out vouchers to volunteers who take the next flight, when a plane is overbooked. In the context of humanitarian assistance, not getting on the plane may mean several additional days in a location.
The security situation and poor infrastructure make land transportation a huge challenge in Niger. With only one commercial aviation company operating to a handful of destinations in the country, UNHAS is a valued means of transport for the humanitarian community to access the growing number of people in need, mostly dispersed in remote and insecure places.
While refueling is underway the team discusses how not to drop any passengers. “I think I have it!” says the pilot. His solution is to use three instead of four seats to set up the stretcher, which leaves a spot for an additional passenger. He calls his supervisors on the phone to obtain clearance that the plan is in accordance with the flight safety regulations they are bound to. The plan is cleared!
They fly from Zinder to Agadez, install the stretcher, bring the patient and the attending doctor to Niamey without leaving any of the original 30 passengers behind. That is what sets this air service apart.
In 2018, UNHAS Niger transported approximately 17,281 passengers and 38.7 metric tons of cargo from over 122 humanitarian organizations. The European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department (ECHO) contributed US$ 920,245 to keep UNHAS flying in Niger.