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From shipping the COVID-19 vaccine to rescuing thousands of Afghan refugees, aviation helped mitigate some of the worst crises of 2021

An Air Europa plane assisting with the evacuation of Afghanistan refugees.

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty

  • The aviation industry has played a key role in mitigating the effects of 2021’s worst moments. 
  • Transport aircraft aided in the evacuation of Afghan refugees while humanitarian flights helped deliver supplies to disaster areas. 
  • Aviation also helped reconnect family, friends, and loved ones as borders reopened. 

The aviation industry has endured a very turbulent time during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2020, travelers rushed to book flights on commercial airliners while the wealthy splurged on private jets just to get home as the world shut down around them.

But after March 2020, the global public was largely wary of flying and many had no place to go. Less than 500,000 travelers departed from US airports daily from March 21, 2020, until June 10, 2020, according to the Transportation Security Administration, and it wasn’t until October 17, 2020, that more than one million travelers departed from US airports in a given day. 

Travelers began flying again in earnest during the last few months of 2020 but 2021 is where aviation regained its stride. Days with more than one million travelers using US airports are once again the norm and some airlines are back to recording profits.

But beyond just the routine passenger flights taking vacationers on much-needed getaways, aviation played a vital role in mitigating the effect of some of the year’s worst catastrophes as well as in reconnecting a fractured world. 

Here’s how aviation helped save the world in 2021. 

Supporting the COVID-19 vaccine airlift

Singapore Airlines COVID-19 VaccineSingapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI)

Aviation’s arguably most impactful feat in 2021 was facilitating the global distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The first flights began in 2020 and were largely operated in secret or with the utmost level of security. A chartered United Airlines aircraft brought the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Europe to the US in November 2020, in anticipation of regulator approval.

Once in the US, cargo carriers including UPS Airlines helped transport the vaccines around the country. Without air cargo facilitating those early deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, states across the US would not have been able to expedite the vaccine rollout in 2021 that has resulted in more than half of the population becoming fully vaccinated. 

Emirates SkyCargo, the airfreight division of Middle Eastern mega carrier Emirates, has flown more than 500 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on its aircraft since November 2020. At least 200 million of those doses were flown in October and November alone. 

“It’s really getting into a supply chain flow, which we see with regular shipments,” Bert Allard Jorritsma, manager of Emirates SkyCargo’s special cargo service delivery, told Insider. “But we should not forget because the pandemic is not over yet, the importance [of the vaccines.]”

The US State Department is facilitating the donation of 1.2 billion doses of the COVID-19 to countries around the world, an endeavor also made possible by air cargo. 

Helping Haiti recover after an earthquake

Haiti earthquake humanitarian flightA World Food Programme helicopter brings supplies to Haiti after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in 2021.

Richard Pierrin/Getty

In mid-August, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake impacted the Caribbean nation of Haiti, causing death and destruction. The US government and private air carriers provided support to Haiti to assist with recovery and aid efforts. 

The US military’s Joint Task Force-Haiti provided 19 helicopters and eight transport aircraft that assisted 477 people and transported 587,950 pounds of supplies, according to the US Agency for International Development. 

US Customs and Border Protection sent aircraft and personnel to Haiti to assist with recovery efforts. The Lockheed P-3 aircraft flew more than 20 hours, helping facilitate communications for other aircraft conducting rescue and relief missions. 

Cargo carriers including National Air Cargo and Volga-Dnepr Group arranged humanitarian supply flights while JetBlue Airways sent a plane from Florida with first responders and relief supplies to the country, according to CBS Miami.

Agape Flights, a Christian nonprofit organization that assists in humanitarian efforts, used its aircraft to deliver supplies to Haiti. One of its pilots, after being approached by wounded Haitians in the commune of Les Cayes, flew around six people to the capital city of Port-au-Prince to receive medical attention, according to the Herald-Tribune. 

Flying over the shipping crisis


Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Air cargo has shifted from becoming a luxury for some shippers to a necessity as hundreds of container ships find themselves spending weeks outside ports from Los Angeles to Savannah, Georgia. While a more expensive option compared to ocean shipping, shippers are adapting to the new reality of getting goods to market. 

“The amount of time people are wasting and people missing their deadlines … cost way more than the cost to charter a plane,” Jill Rice, a partner owner of PortX Logistics, told Insider during atour of port congestion in Los Angeles Harbor. 

The new-found demand for air cargo has passenger and freight airlines alike looking to grow their operations with new aircraft. Between November and December, the likes of Air France, Singapore Airlines, CMA CGM Air Cargo, and UPS Airlines have committed to billions of dollars worth of new cargo planes from Boeing and Airbus. 

“People really got used to expediting cargo [on aircraft] and the new world of the supply chain,” Christopher Alf, chairman of National Air Cargo, told Insider. “People get used to moving quicker and we all know the world’s moving quicker so people are demanding freight to come at a faster clip.”

But just as port congestion grew in places like Los Angeles, air cargo might experience a similar issue. Air cargo is not immune to the labor shortage or the truck driver shortage and overfilling warehouses may be the sign of new congestion issues, as the Wall Street Journal reported. 

Evacuating thousands of refugees from Afghanistan

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load people being evacuated from Afghanistan onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load people being evacuated from Afghanistan onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Force via AP

The final days of the War in Afghanistan relied upon the aviation industry to evacuate Afghan refugees and any remaining Americans in the country that wanted to leave the country as the Taliban took over.  

US-flagged airlines activated under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet were tasked by the US government, for the first time since 2004, with helping to evacuate Afghan refugees. A total of 18 aircraft from long-haul airlines including American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Atlas Air, Omni Air, and Hawaiian Airlines flew to military bases in Europe and the Middle East to fly thousands of refugees directly to the US for resettlement. 

Other US carriers flew directly into a deteriorating Kabul, Afghanistan to rescue refugees. National Air Cargo, a long-time military contractor, says it was the last US carrier on the ground in Afghanistan before the US military officially pulled out of the country. Global Crossing, a new Miami-based charter airline, also flew rescue missions directly out of Kabul using its fleet of Airbus A320 family aircraft. 

Turkish Airlines and Pakistan International Airlines were also able to fly Boeing 777 aircraft into Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, despite mounting security risks, to evacuate citizens of their respective countries. And within Kabul, the US military used helicopters to help evacuate the US Embassy in Afghanistan. 

One US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transported 823 Afghan citizens from Kabul, setting a record for the aircraft, according to the US Air Mobility Command. 

On August 31, the final US military aircraft departed Kabul for Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, marking the end of the 20-year War in Afghanistan. 

Recovering and learning from Hurricane Ida

Marine One Hurricane IdaMarine One carrying President Joe Biden surveys the damage from Hurricane Ida in Louisiana.


While the Afghanistan airlift was underway in the Middle East, the US was dealing with a hurricane that ran through the Southeast and East Coast. Hurricane Ida caused devastation in at least 12 states with intense rainfall and flooding. 

Helping track and study Hurricane Ida was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its fleet of storm-chasing aircraft. While most aircraft were avoiding the storm, NOAA’s Gulfstream IV-SP and Lockheed WP-3D Orions flew a total of nine missions in and above the storm to gather data.

“These missions gathered critical data for both forecasting the storm’s track and intensity as well as conducting research to improve our understanding of how and why hurricanes rapidly intensify,” NOAA said in a statement. 

And after the storm cleared, a NOAA aircraft was used to survey and photograph the damage in an effort to assist federal, state, and local agencies with recovery efforts. 

Independent organizations including Operation Airdrop, Aerobridge, and Angel Flights also ferried in supplies using donated aircraft to aid in the recovery, as Flying Mag reported.  

Reuniting countries with the US after nearly two years

US borders reopening November 8, 2021A couple reunites after US borders reopen on November 8, 2021.


For most of 2021, travelers from most of Europe, South Africa, and Brazil were largely barred from entering the US under travel restrictions initially imposed by the Trump administration and renewed by the Biden administration. Those restrictions kept the US closed off while affected countries opened their doors to American citizens early on in 2021. 

The Biden administration finally eased those restrictions with a reopening date of November 8. Foreign travelers rushed to purchase airline tickets in the hopes of reuniting with friends, family members, and loved ones in the US.

Airport arrival halls were packed with Americans that were once again able to host their foreign visitors after nearly two years of separation. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways also marked the occasion by performing a joint takeoff from London’s Heathrow Airport bound for New York. 

“Today is about celebrating the UK-US reopening of the transatlantic corridor after more than 600 days of separation,” Sean Doyle, British Airways’ chief executive officer, said on the day. “Being able to bring families, friends, and businesses back together is part of closing this chapter and celebrating what’s to come.”

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