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FEMA winds down Project Airbridge

Hospital supplies now moving by ocean, eliminating need for expensive air charters

A FEMA Project Airbridge flight unloading at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. (Photo: Alexis Hall/FEMA)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Project Airbridge, the emergency logistics effort to rush personal protective equipment and other critical supplies into the U.S. to combat the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., has accomplished its mission and will be phased out by the end of the month.

The decision, announced Thursday, reflects the fact that hospitals, nursing homes, first responders and distributors now have enough face masks and other hospital gear to meet their needs and can use regular supply chain channels to replenish inventories, FEMA said. The news aligns with accounts from logistics professionals who say the elimination of backlogs at Chinese airports and a sharp drop in airfreight rates the past couple of weeks are the result of falling demand for healthcare safety equipment. 

With the reduction in urgency, many medical supplies are now being shipped by ocean transport at lower cost.

FEMA said it will scale back contracted flights with the final flight landing in the U.S. about June 30. It has completed about 250 flights since the first airbridge flight landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International airport March 29. Project Airbridge will remain an option to expedite deliveries of medical items if the U.S. experiences another COVID wave that overwhelms the supply system, FEMA said. 

Atlas Air, FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX), UPS Airlines (NYSE: UPS), Antonov Airlines, National Airlines and other all-cargo carriers have been delivering plane loads of equipment to airports across the country. The airlift, according to FEMA data through June 18, has transported:

  • Nearly 1.5 million N-95 respirator masks
  • More than 2.5 million face shields
  • 937 million gloves
  • More than 2.4 million thermometers
  • 113.4 million surgical masks
  • 1.4 million coveralls
  • 50.9 million gowns
  • 109,000 stethoscopes

Project Airbridge was created as a temporary solution to address the immediate shortfall in healthcare equipment by reducing the amount of time for delivering  supplies purchased overseas by private healthcare distributors such as Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp. After arriving at airports, materials are deconsolidated at local warehouses and delivered by truck to facilities in COVID hot spots identified by the Centers for Disease Control and to the distributors’ traditional clients.

Under Project Airbridge, FEMA purchased air transportation on behalf of its private sector partners. The U.S. government and private groups separately procure additional supplies and arranging for transport with logistics companies and airlines, without FEMA’s involvement.

3M, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, was one of the companies Project Airbridge assisted. In early April, the company announced a plan to import 166.5 million respirators from 3M plants in Asia over a three-month period, with U.S. government help. In one instance, an Antonov AN-124 cargo plane delivered more than 4 million respirators at Baltimore-Washington International Airport after a 15-hour flight from Shanghai, according to FEMA and the company’s website.

(Click here for more FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch)

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]