Marshalls air cargo crisis: search is on for alternative

U.S Air Force deliver medicine to Marshall Islands (September 2005)

The Marshall Islands government has been forced into making alternative air delivery options for everything from mail and medicines to fresh tuna and equipment for essential public services due to the mounting air cargo crisis.

The government in Majuro has declared a state of emergency after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded Asia Pacific Airlines (APA).

It has left the Marshall Islands with no air cargo service for imports or exports. In addition to bottlenecking mail and urgently-needed medicines and hospital supplies, it has shut down the multi-million dollar exports of fresh tuna caught by longline fishing vessels based in Majuro.

In declaring the state of emergency, President David Kabua directed the Aviation Task Force to “find the best alternative for air freight and cargo service for the RMI2.

The crisis is now into its ninth week. The airline grounding was effective from February 1 and the state of emergency was signed on 16 March.

Mail is backed up in Honolulu and Guam, and cargo of all types including fish exports from Majuro are halted.

The inability to deliver medical supplies, equipment and medicines is becoming increasingly dire with each day that goes by. There is no end in sight to the APA grounding, which has Marshall Islands officials looking to alternative carriers.

Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said last Friday that the hospital was 10 days from running out of HIV treatment medications and other essential drugs, and has run out of reagents needed for the main hospital laboratory to screen blood donations for Hepatitis B.

Multiple orders have been made, “but nothing is arriving,” he said, adding numerous orders are stuck in Guam or Honolulu waiting for air delivery service to the Marshall Islands.

The President’s declaration directs the Cabinet-appointed Aviation Task Force to “find the best alternative for air freight and cargo service” in response to the FAA’s grounding of APA.

Nauru Airlines and United Airlines officials initiated preliminary discussions late last week about possible mail and cargo options in the short-term to alleviate the current cargo roadblock, said Aviation Task Force member Jerry Kramer.

That is one option being pursued. The Aviation Task Force (ATF) is also taking a long-term view about how to solve the country’s air cargo needs, according to several members of the task force. The ATF is looking at best alternatives, and how the Marshall Islands could turn this situation into a win, according to officials in the ATF.

One possibility under discussion is to develop Majuro as a sub-regional cargo hub by using a combination of Air Marshall Islands – which has landing rights in the U.S – and a potential local investment group to lease an aircraft for long-term cargo service.

The APA grounding also affects the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, as United Airlines has for many years sub-contracted with APA to carry mail to the islands. The President’s emergency declaration directs various ministries and agencies of government to do what is necessary to support efforts of the Aviation Task Force to resolve the current air cargo crisis.