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Air Serv International Uses GA Plane to Serve People in Crisis

When a war breaks out in the Congo, or when an earthquake levels part of Pakistan, relief workers and volunteers turn to one organization to reach communities in need of aid.

Air Serv International, an NBAA Member Company based in Warrenton, VA, has worked with almost every nonprofit relief group in the world in a very special way: The organization uses general aviation (GA) aircraft to fly doctors, engineers, volunteers and peacekeeping forces into remote locations and communities.

"When the humanitarian world mobilizes, transportation is immediately needed," says Jim Plaxton, CEO of Air Serv International. "We have a unique and important way of making a difference in those places affected by disasters."

Air Serv began operations in 1984, when nonprofit organizations sought to fly in food, water and medical supplies to famine-stricken Ethiopia. Because that African country had few roads, some of which were inaccessible because of violent conflicts, aviation became the best way to quickly and safely transport volunteers.

Today, Air Serv International is well known and trusted in the humanitarian aid community. The organization operates in 36 countries around the globe, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and frequently works with groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the United States Agency for International Development.

A Fleet Designed to Serve

In addition to transporting volunteers, Air Serv also carries goods and medicine, flies medical evacuations and helps repatriate displaced persons.

Air Serv has a fleet of 12 de Havilland Twin Otters, Cessna Caravans, Beechcraft King Airs and Embraer 120s that are well suited for landing on rough terrain. Additionally, Air Serv utilizes other aircraft, as needed, for particular missions.

Angie Petersen, Air Serv director of program development, explains that an American volunteer can take a commercial flight to a major city, then a connecting flight to a regional center. "But how do you get from there to where you need to be, where you need to work?" she asks. "If we didn't have our planes, there would be no way to bring in the support needed to rebuild countries devastated by war, famine or natural disasters."

In the last decade, more than 230,000 passengers and 1,600 metric tons of supplies have been flown into areas by Air Serv missions.

Supporting a Rapid-Response Capability

Air Serv International is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies on contributions to keep its planes in the air and well maintained.

"Contributions from our supporters, along with government grants, make it possible to keep costs low for the humanitarian agencies we work with, yet still maintain a safe operation," says CEO Plaxton.

Air Serv has a general fund to manage day-to-day operations, pay for equipment maintenance, and plan and provide for technical and safety upgrades. Unrestricted gifts provide the organization with the greatest flexibility to use funds in the best way possible at any given time, and a separate emergency fund enables donors to support rapid responses to sudden onset disasters and emergencies.

“If we didn't have our planes, there would be no way to bring in the support needed to rebuild countries devastated by war, famine or natural disasters. ”

Director of Program Development, Air Serv International

"We need to have the flexibility to get the appropriate aircraft for a particular mission through a purchase or lease," Plaxton says. "For instance, we needed a helicopter for a relief mission in Afghanistan because there really wasn't a safe place for an airplane to land."

Relief Efforts Aimed at Sustainable Development and Growth

One of Air Serv's primary goals is to ensure that areas receiving relief efforts are able to sustain their own development and rebuild on their own.

As an example of the organization's emphasis on long-term infrastructure investment, Plaxton points to the work of Air Serv volunteers and staff to engage local communities to understand the benefits of aviation, and build and maintain runways and airports.

"Eventually, the emergency relief turns to infrastructure development," Plaxton explains. "We work with the community and help them build safe, efficient aviation operations and understand their value. It is our goal that the areas we serve can sustain themselves long after we're out of there."

It can be a daunting task, but Field Operations Manager Moise Liboto says the results are well worth the time and energy spent. Liboto has worked in Afghanistan and Chad, as well as in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Congo native developed a passion for aviation from watching planes fly near his village, and that interest led him to work with the United Nations and then Air Serv. He now aims to pass that passion onto other communities.

Setting High Goals for the Future

Petersen says the demand for air transportation services continues to grow, and Air Serv is evolving from an organization fueled by passion alone to one dedicated to increasing flight safety and service through technology, strategy and professionalization.

To that end, Air Serv's planes are being outfitted with SkyTrac satellite communications systems and Infosat communications equipment. "Soon there will be a 24-hour staff monitoring our flights, so if there's a problem or delay, someone will be observing the situation," says Petersen.

Beginning later this year, Air Serv clients will be able to book flights online. A custom-designed, online reservation, booking and invoicing system will enable approved non-governmental organization clients to access information on Air Serv flights from any location. Field workers will be able to book flights, with expense reports and other paperwork sent directly to the headquarters agency, thereby increasing security.

Being a Member of NBAA gives Air Serv access to a wealth of information and connects the organization with thousands of companies in the business aviation community to reach out to for assistance, notes Plaxton.

"On-demand air transportation is a critical service to the humanitarian community, and our flights create an awareness of how GA aircraft are being used to help develop a future for these communities and countries torn apart by war, disease and disasters," he says.