Airlines Fly Away From Ebola, Leaving Aid Workers Stranded

Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, Liberia Photograph by Abbas Dulleh/AP Photo

The three West African nations hit hardest by the Ebola pandemic have seen a dramatic reduction in airline service, and it’s not simply because travelers don’t want to go. There’s one group of travelers—medical aid workers—who urgently want to reach the affected countries to help patients and disrupt transmission of the virus.

British Airways stopped flying to Sierra Leone and Liberia back in August, and the carrier recently extended that hiatus until March 31. Emirates likewise ended its flights during the same month between Dubai and Conakry, the capital of Guinea. Now the travel restrictions are going the other way, too: British officials over the weekend told an African-based carrier, Gambia Bird, it could not operate a nonstop flight from London to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Gambia Bird had planned to resume the London-Freetown route on Friday to bring back a flight used by both nongovernmental organizations and business travelers, an airline spokesman said. The carrier, owned by German airline Germania, had stopped its flights in August due to the Ebola crisis.

“It is difficult to get people in and out,” says Ian Rodgers, director of operational support and preparedness for Save the Children in Washington, D.C. His NGO is currently operating at 60 percent of full staff in the Ebola-hit region. To work around the scarcity of commercial flights, Save the Children personnel have been relying on flights by Brussels Airlines from Belgium and by Royal Air Maroc from Casablanca, the two major airlines that have maintained service to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Air France has also kept its flight from Paris to Conakry.

“We do, however, anticipate that simply as we surge up and everybody else surges up, just the amount of seats available will be concerning,” says Rodgers, a veteran of relief efforts in Bosnia, Haiti, and Sudan. Save the Children sends about 165 staff into Liberia and Sierra Leone each month, with a smaller number rotating out for breaks. Other major NGOs are likely to have similar numbers, depending on their size.

There’s no central decision-making body overseeing airline service into Ebola-ravaged areas. The airlines have made their own decisions amid an international debate on how best to balance public health worries with what Rodgers calls a right to “ensure that there’s freedom of movement.” More than 4,000 people have died from Ebola as of Oct. 8, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and international air travel has already carried at least one infected traveler outside of West Africa.

“We see it as our responsibility to continue flying,” says Wencke Lemmes, a spokeswoman for Brussels Airlines, which flies to 19 African destinations and is part-owned by Lufthansa. “It’s important to keep these countries linked.” The airline has shifted some schedules at the request of Senegalese officials, so that flights from Europe stop in Dakar before they continue to an Ebola-affected country, she said. That debate has spilled over to other governments, with some people urging travel bans as a way to contain Ebola’s spread.

Almost two-thirds of Americans would support restrictions on allowing people from Ebola-affected nations into the U.S., according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Given the collision of airline cutbacks and a surge of relief workers and cargo to the region, several NGOs are discussing the need for a potential charter service to help bypass the shortage of commercial options. That’s usually how aid workers get to and from areas wracked by war or earthquakes. As more health workers in Africa potentially contract the disease, Rodgers believes organizations will be keen to establish a reliable way to evacuate those workers.

The charter route has been used in recent weeks to transport medical supplies and other equipment to Liberia and Sierra Leone, funded by a $3 million donation from billionaire Paul Allen. A fourth cargo flight is planned next week from Europe, says Robert Brown, president of Airlink, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that coordinates humanitarian flights. “We’re aware of the passenger issue, and we’re interested in seeing if we can find a charter airline that would be willing to fly into West Africa on a regular basis,” Brown says.

Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, has a net worth of $16.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and has pledged $25 million through his foundation to tackle the crisis, as has fellow tech billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. Allen is willing to boost his initial $3 million grant if a passenger charter becomes necessary, Brown says.

Using charters over commercial flights could solve the current air service problem for NGOs, if not for citizens of the affected countries. And to Rodgers, that just illustrates a truism charitable organizations have understood for decades: “Like any other logistical problem,” he says, “if you throw money at it, it goes away.”

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