June 16, 2023

FEMA charters Ukrainian cargo airlines for Guam relief


The Federal Emergency Management Agency is utilizing two Ukrainian cargo airlines to help provide emergency airlift for disaster-recovery efforts in Guam over the partial objections of two U.S. carriers.

Ukraine Air Alliance on Monday delivered eight pallets of computer equipment to Guam on a 57-year-old, four-engine An-12 turboprop built by the Antonov Co. in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, according to tracking site Flightradar24 and government filings. FEMA has also chartered at least eight flights from the U.S. to Guam with Antonov Airlines, an operator of giant An-124 freighters.

FEMA is organizing the flights in response to Typhoon Mawar, which slammed Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands last month, damaging essential water, energy and transport infrastructure.

Atlas Air, a major cargo airline based in Purchase, New York, complained to the Department of Transportation about permission it granted Ukraine Air Alliance to operate between U.S. locations, activity that is normally reserved for U.S. companies. Guam is a U.S. territory.

The DOT, under U.S. law, can authorize foreign carriers to carry goods in domestic traffic under emergency situations where the flights are in the public interest and U.S.-certified carriers are not able to provide service.

“Attempts were made to move this cargo via U.S. carriers, but they did not have adequate availability to support our very urgent timeline,” a FEMA transportation officer said in a letter seeking assistance obtaining traffic rights for the chartered flight by Ukraine Air Alliance.

Atlas Air last week filed an objection, saying it could have provided service from Washington Dulles International Airport on Tuesday — arriving in Guam on Wednesday — with a 747-400 jumbo jet that is faster and has a longer range that requires fewer refueling stops than the smaller An-12. Atlas Air noted that Ukraine Air Alliance, or its charter broker, didn’t notify it, as required, of its plans and that if contacted earlier it likely could have arranged a flight more quickly. 

The Ukraine Air Alliance flight for FEMA made technical stops in San Bernardino, California, Honolulu and the Marshall Islands before reaching Guam.

“We note that the cargo to be transported, computer equipment, appears to be intended for ongoing recovery efforts, not food or medicine, which could create immediate jeopardy to human lives,” Atlas Air said.

One aviation industry expert who spoke to FreightWaves on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, noted that the 2,500-pound load of computer equipment would take up a fraction of the available space on a 747-400 and cost taxpayers much more to operate than the An-12. Atlas Air’s specification sheet for the 747-400 shows it can handle 30 main deck containers or pallets and about 10 smaller containers in the lower hold.

On June 6, Atlas Air filed a separate letter with the DOT voicing its concern that U.S. carriers are not being adequately consulted in the bid process for would-be domestic flights after Portuguese charter airline Hi Fly received an exemption to transport 250 FEMA personnel and equipment on a passenger jet from Honolulu to Guam.

“Atlas is one of the largest providers of lift to the U.S. government for these types of missions, and we would like to ensure the processes for emergency cabotage operations are working correctly. If Atlas did have an airplane, it would put us in the untenable position of having to object when our priority is getting relief flights in the air as soon as possible.

“The availability of U.S. carrier lift should be confirmed early in the bid process, not at the end stage of polling [U.S. carriers] on the application once the contract has been signed and flight preparations are underway. We urge the Department to put foreign air carriers on notice of the need to verify the availability of U.S. carrier lift, which would certainly include major Part 121 operators of large jet aircraft, such as Atlas. The Department should consider requiring that emergency cabotage application be supported by a signed verification of an officer of the applicant confirming that this has been done,” Atlas Air wrote.

Ukraine Air Alliance’s fleet consists of four An-12 freighters, all older than 50 years, according to the company’s website. The unit that flew to Guam (registration number UR-CGV) flew several times this year between Laredo, Texas, and Managua, Nicaragua, according to Flightradar24.

The Loadstar first reported the objection filed by Atlas Air.

Meanwhile, Antonov Airlines, which relocated from Kyiv to Leipzig Halle airport in Germany after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, is moving fuel trucks, tractor trailers, flatbed trucks and other large equipment to Guam on An-124-100 freighters — the largest aircraft in commercial operation today.

An-124s have two internal cranes, nose-and-tail loading with expanded ramps, and multileg landing gear each with 24 wheels that enable it to tilt the fuselage lower for easier loading and unloading.

The planes are so large that FEMA is able to load four large trucks, other vehicles, supply trailers and other cargo on a single flight. The planes are flying out of San Bernardino International Airport and Honolulu. FEMA and the DOT said no U.S.-registered carriers had available aircraft large enough to handle the unique shipments.

The DOT routinely approves Antonov Airlines to conduct cabotage flights within U.S. territory transporting oversize shipments for companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Boeing recently hired the Ukrainian carrier to quickly move a fuselage section for a 767 tanker from a supplier in South Florida to prevent a plant near Seattle from closing down. 

Air Micronesia, which operates under the brand name Asia Pacific Airlines and is headquartered in Guam, dropped a protest after Antonov withdrew its request for an exemption to also pick up non-outsized cargo during fueling stops in Honolulu and the Northern Mariana Islands. Asia Pacific Airlines said it had cargo jets available to carry normal freight to Guam from Hawaii. Its fleet consists of four Boeing 757-200 narrowbody aircraft, according to the company’s website.

In early May, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted a suspension of Asia Pacific’s operating authority that had been in place since February because the airline was unable to produce records that its pilots were properly trained. The department said two trainers were not qualified and that flight checks provided by the individuals are invalid, nullifying the entire pilot pool. Asia Pacific disputed the claim and many charges were dismissed at an appeal heard by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Click here for more FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch.

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