“Every building was just rubble,” recalls Airlink President & Board Chairman Robert Brown of his 2010 visit to Haiti.
Eight years ago, the 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit 15 miles from Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince, killing more than 100,000 people and displacing more than a million others.
The devastating event prompted the response of countless organizations and the very first disaster response effort by Airlink.
From its inception, Brown envisioned Airlink as an organization that would speed up the response to natural disasters by strategically utilizing existing aviation networks and coordinating humanitarian response.
In 2005, Brown was the board chair of the ISTAT Foundation. Following a Hurricane Katrina relief program, Brown and his fellow trustees saw an opportunity for an in-house humanitarian program within the ISTAT Foundation. Airlink was founded in 2010 and just weeks into the new year, Airlink began coordinating its first mission.
“Frankly, Haiti was massive. The scale and timeframe of the response was so big,” says Brown. He remembers working quickly to establish a plan with support from the University of Miami and major partners within the aviation industry. Soon after the dust had settled, the fledgling organization was preparing to send a desperately needed sterile medical equipment and professionals to survivors awaiting care.
“Soon, we were supporting a constant flow of medical professionals in and out of Haiti,” he says.
In total, Airlink and nine dedicated airline partners moved 2,010 doctors, nurses, and relief workers through 41 flights to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Flights also delivered more than 500,000 pounds of relief supplies.
The efficiency with which Airlink was able to respond and its ability to coordinate partners set the tone for what the organization would continue to do over the next eight years.
“After a disaster, timing is everything,” Brown says. “Our service to our NGO-partners and the people they need to reach is important because we can improve their timely response. They don’t lose time trying to navigate the cargo and passenger process. We maintain relationships with the airlines to consolidate loads and negotiate prices to get our NGO partners there quickly and inexpensively.”
Looking back on Airlink’s first response, Brown says he is proud of what they were able to accomplish and honored to have been able to spend time with some incredible volunteers and locals. The mission also provided some valuable insight for Airlink.
“Haiti taught us how important it was to have financial resources available to complement the donated capacity of airlines,” Brown says.
Grant assistance was a large part of the Haiti response as well as other major Airlink missions that would come later, like Ebola in West Africa, but Brown says they quickly understood that they couldn’t count on that kind of support every time there was a disaster.
“We established something called the Disaster Response Fund, so we have the means to act swiftly, as soon as we’re needed.”
The team quickly grew more regimented in who and what they transport to better support the humanitarian supply chain. Airlink’s vetted NGO partners must be solely focused on bringing in urgently needed supplies or workers.
“With the Haiti earthquake, there were supply chain jams for everyone involved. Organizations would arrive with aid and pallets started congesting the runway,” recalls Brown. “We’ve been able to better understand what is really needed on the ground and how to move it.”
Today, Airlink has increased its reach, partnering with nearly 80 NGOs and more than 35 airlines. With a deep understanding of humanitarian logistics and relief transportation supply and demand, Airlink serves as a resource for its airline and NGO partners.
“Airlink staff has become more coordinated with other agencies- sharing and providing information with other players and coordinating bodies. We’re now acting with a level of sophistication that you don’t possess in the early days of a small nonprofit,” Brown says, adding that the organization is working toward implementing new tools and technology to work even more quickly in the future.
With its roots in aviation, Brown says he couldn’t be more pleased with the way the aviation community has responded to Airlink. “It’s very much an industry initiative as it was from the start. The aviation industry has embraced us and made us what we are. That support is overwhelming to me,” he says.
Partner collaboration and donor generosity continue to fuel the organization, enabling an extensive reach and impact around the globe. With its partners, Airlink has moved 3,000,000+ pounds of cargo and more than 4,000 people to date. Consistently realizing goals identified eight years ago, Airlink continues to bring people together to deliver much needed aid to communities made vulnerable by disaster.