Steve Smith has been President and CEO of Airlink for ten years, during which time he has taken the organization from a fledgling enterprise to an experienced, professional disaster logistics nonprofit that delivers hope and aid to millions of people across the globe. Today, Airlink works with and enjoys partnerships with the world’s leading airlines and nonprofit organizations. Since Smith joined Airlink in 2013, he has delivered a twentyfold increase in the organization’s resource base and global impact.
Today, Smith oversees all of Airlink’s operations, leading a team that delivers humanitarian aid and responders, capacity building for the disaster relief nonprofit sector, and significant efficiencies across the disaster logistics landscape. Airlink also serves as a growth partner to new NGOs in the disaster response space. Wherever there is a natural or man-made disaster, Airlink responds by providing free and low-cost air transport and logistical coordination to an ever-growing network of over 130 NGOs. Among Smith’s career highlights is Airlink’s Ebola Airbridge to West Africa, referenced multiple times by President Clinton as one of the top three successes of CGI and the Clinton Foundation.
Smith is a member of The Aero Club of Washington DC Board of Governors and was selected as part of the 2023 Class of Presidential Leadership Scholars. Before joining Airlink, Smith held several international leadership positions across several sectors – aviation, logistics, nonprofit, public relations, and information technology.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 00:01
Supply chains to the rescue. A huge merger gets the go-ahead. And technologies that combine seeing and hearing.
Pull up a chair and join us as the editors of DC Velocity discuss these stories, as well as news and supply chain trends, on this week's Logistics Matters podcast.
Hi, I'm Dave Maloney. I'm the group editorial director at DC Velocity. Welcome.
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As usual, our DC Velocity senior editors Ben Ames and Victoria Kickham will be along to provide their insight into the top stories of this week. But to begin today: Last month, a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria. That shaking was followed by a 7.7-magnitude aftershock and thousands of smaller aftershocks. Sadly, more than 50,000 people lost their lives. Immediately, the world rushed in with rescue teams and medical and food supplies. One of those groups working to coordinate the logistics behind those relief supplies is Airlink. Joining me now to talk about those efforts is Steve Smith, the president and CEO of Airlink.
Welcome, Steve. Thanks for joining us on Logistics Matters.
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 01:38
Thanks for having me, Dave. It's great to be here. Thanks for including us.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 01:42
For those who are not familiar with Airlink, could you describe a little bit about your work?
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 01:47
Sure, be happy to. Airlink is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), and we're a disaster-response nonprofit, and we provide free airlift coordination and logistical solutions to a network of over 150 global nonprofits. And so, really, the concept is identifying and removing the cost of transportations to make sure that's not a bar to NGOs responding to disasters. And we really act as a platform for air carriers, forwarders, and logistics providers to really come together to support humanitarian relief around the world. You know, last year, we actually — the programs we supported through our nonprofit partners help 12.3 million people. and that was made up of 38 disasters responded to, supporting 92 NGOs across 54 countries, and, you know, that's about 1,300 tons of aid and about 1,300 expert and volunteer responders. And so, we're really pleased to be talking to you today. Thanks for helping us share the message a little bit.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 02:50
It's our pleasure. Thanks for the good work that you do. Now, you not only move cargo through your networks, but also the people who need to be there to help assist with the rescue workers, and those folks that are boots on the ground. Is that correct?
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 03:04
That's absolutely right. You know, we've moved, as I said, 1,300 expert responders last year, and it's really amazing, you know, 1,300 maybe doesn't sound like a lot, but, you know, one of the groups we moved in — specifically, this was a little while ago, when we were responding to the Ukraine conflict, you know, a group of half a dozen individuals went into a warehouse, set up a inventory management system, and then developed a major artery into southern Ukraine for supplies to go in. And so that's just six people, and we sent, you know, 1,300 of those last year that do, all do specific and specialized activities, so it's pretty exciting to be able to do that.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 03:47
You mentioned a number of events that you were responding to during the past year. How do you decide when to respond to a particular crisis?
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 03:55
Yeah, that's a great question. When we respond to disasters, it's really, we're really a demand-led organization. You know, we're very much a proponent of a pull mechanism to make sure that the disaster management agencies are defined where needed, looking at the needs less, but we also serve as a network of, as I said, 150 nonprofit partners. So, they're telling us, based on their ground assessments, based on our assessment, saying, "Okay, this is what's needed. This is where we need to go." And I always like to say, or we always like to say, is that "Ask us for what you need, and not what you think you can get." And we support a number of, you know, areas around the world that are sort of thematic areas, not just rapid response for disasters. We do health-systems strengthening, which is you know, as Covid hit everywhere around the world, all the systems went down, so we continue to build those back up. We support displaced and migrant communities, and also food and clean-water security, so, you know, that's, we're really a demand-led organization, I guess is the short answer that.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 05:00
You work with airlines, air carriers, freight forwarders. How do you get all these folks to support you, and have you noticed any lack of response or a downturn because of the economic situation the world is in right now?
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 05:10
Yeah, that's a great question. You know, I guess I would answer, you know, when we were looking at, early on in Covid and you saw the market go down then, and all the capacity coming out of the market, you would have thought that that would have been a really bad — it was very bad — but, a significant issue for Airlink. What we saw is an uptick in support of organizations and the aviation sector, logistics sector stepping up to support, which they do every time there's a disaster, they do consistently, at all times. And so, actually, you know, we saw an increase in support that we received from those, from the sector. You know, given the current situation, you know, you know, I guess we're gonna have to see. We understand that, you know, yields are down, and it's going to be more challenging for cargo providers with lots of inventory stacked up in various different places, but we still see tremendous support. The airlines and the logistic providers continue to step up every year, and so I'm optimistic about the support we can get.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 06:15
Where does your funding come from? Are these offered as free services, or reduced cost, or how does that work?
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 06:22
Yeah, good question. So, the funding comes from a mix of sources, so yes, I would say, you know, 50% of our support comes from donated free-of-charge flights, logistic services. Funding comes from, we've recently set up a number of things, one of them being an air bridge from Haiti to — from Miami to Haiti. With BHA, the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance under USAID, other foundations Hilton foundation Airlink. It was originally founded from the Aviation finance sector, an organization called ISTAT, the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading. And so, a lot of our funding comes from airplane, aircraft leasing companies and the aviation sector itself, but again, you know, a lot of the donated capacity, obviously has to come from the airlines, and we have some really great partners out there. We have, [we're] working with Qatar Airways, American Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and are global lead, signature lead partner, United Airlines, plus many others, but those are some of the top ones we work with. Probably about 50 airlines in total.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 07:35
That's great. We mentioned at the beginning of the interview about the crisis in Turkey and Syria. What are you doing to help those people and the response that is being done by the world?
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 07:45
Yeah, so thank you. Within the last, within sort of 48 hours of the — actually, even less than that — we already had people in the air for our NGO search-and-rescue teams, and I want to say that we sent, you know, search-and-rescue teams for over dozen different organizations. We even have a video, actually, of a couple of specifically, specific folks that we sent there — they filmed the rescue of individual — found three individuals, I think, under under the rubble — that we had sent in, so that, you don't usually get such a direct correlation to some of the things you do, but that was really fantastic. We've, we have multiple air bridges going in, and supporting flights in from places such as Pakistan, for the International Federation, the Red Crescent, and through working with Turkish Airlines, one of our biggest partners for this response, they've really been supporting relief efforts from all over the world on their network. And so we continue to respond, and we have over 1,000 tonnes still to go. We've had, I think, about seven flights go in from Pakistan, a number of others from other places around the world, with with tents and various different supplies, and so we continue to support, I think we're at now maybe two or three hundred individuals responders that we've sent in, as well, across 40 different nonprofits. And one of the other things I would say that we do, that I hadn't mentioned before, is that we focus a lot on the coordination, and so, we've had coordination calls for NGOs responding that have had over 100 a hundred attendees on these things, so let's call that perhaps 60 different organizations, to make sure everybody understands regulatory environment, understands how to get cargo through in this, you know, not just Turkey, but also into Syria, which is even more complex.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 09:49
What often happens in the world is a crisis occurs and then there's another crisis to replace it, but in this situation here, you still have thousands of people that are homeless, so the needs continue. What are those needs, and how can people help if they're interested?
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 10:02
Yeah, sure, I mean, so, you know, this is this is gonna go on for a long time, and, you know, the needs are, you know, basic supplies. You've got, you know, first it was shelter — tents; now it's moved to, you know, basic supplies for for people that are still in tented camps, and so the way that individuals can help is by donating. You know, we always say cash is king. Cash is much better than trying to donate used stuff, please don't do that, and to support organizations and entities that are already responding, and that have established and set up responses. Airlink's is one of them, airlinkflight.org. Please go on the website, check that out. But if you're a transportation or logistics company, you know, come talk to us and let's talk about how we can work together — not just on airlift, but also on other elements. So, whether it's forwarding, whether it's trucking, you know, Airlink really, yes, our name's Airlink, but we work on all the other modalities as well, in order to complement and make common-sense decisions about aid that needs to be moved in and where it needs to go.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 10:02
Right. And you're not just working, obviously, in Turkey and Syria, but you had mentioned the war in Ukraine and that area as well, and other places around the world.
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 11:21
Yes, that's right. That's right. We have programs, you know, focused in going into the Horn of Africa. We have, you know, flights and responses going into Afghanistan, and, you know, various different places in Asia. Vanuatu, recently, as well, had a weather event recently. And so, yeah, I mean, response is all around the world. And Ukraine, of course, is our biggest response — as you can imagine, for many organizations — biggest responses ever in our 12-year history. We were founded 2010, around the time of the Haiti earthquake. So fast forward, this has been our biggest response. And you know, we're there for the long haul. Even though our name is Airlink, oftentimes some of these responses and these programs can go up to a couple of years or more.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 12:12
Well, thanks for all the good work that you do. Again, if someone is interested in finding out more information about your organization, or to donate air cargo services or other types of transportation services, the website is airlinkflight.org. Thank you, Steve. We really appreciate it. Thanks for being with us today.
Steve Smith, President and CEO, Airlink 12:31
Thanks for having me.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 12:33
And we have been talking with Steve Smith, the president and CEO of Airlink. Now let's take a look at some of the other supply chain news from the week. And, Ben, you wrote this week about the federal approval of the merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroad systems. What does this combined rail network mean for shippers?
Ben Ames, Senior News Editor, DC Velocity 12:53
Yeah, great question, Dave. What happened, specifically, this week is that regulators with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board — the STB — approved, what this merger is. It's a 31-billion-dollar, with a B, merger for Canadian Pacific, as you said to acquire Kansas City Southern. This was a long time coming. It had been in the works for years. It was initially disputed by Canadian National, which had made a competing bid, likewise, to buy Kansas City Southern, and the STB finally approved it, but they did put a list of conditions on the deal. And that's, from the STB's point of view, is to prevent things like a monopoly position. And, to your point, to protect shippers, as well as rail workers, the environment, passenger-rail interests. There are a lot of touch points here. Now, all this will play out slowly, because the deal becomes final on April 14, about a month from now, unless it's appealed, and Canadian Pacific said that starting then, it'll take about three years to fully merge the two companies. Also, one of the STB's conditions is actually that it will have a seven-year oversight period. So, that's to ensure that, as this merger plays out, and as the different assets come together, the Surface Transportation Board will be able to really keep a close eye. You know one thing, other complaints —other competitors, excuse me, had complained about the danger of a monopoly, but the STB said that these the two combined railroads — again Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern — they'll actually continue, even combined to be the smallest Class I railroad. Their network will be a few thousand miles shorter than the next smallest one, and much less — half the size — of the Western railroads. So the STB said that shippers are generally in favor of the whole thing, since they are predicted to see reduced travel time for traffic that's moving across this single-line service. Largely, that's because it'll eliminate the need for the now separate railroads to interchange traffic that's moving from one system to the other. It'll just be able to flow smoothly. Despite that general approval, the Surface Transportation Board will also have some steps in there — those conditions I mentioned — to protect shippers from big rate hikes, anyway. And they'll do that by setting conditions, particularly looking at existing rail service options at gateways, which are the interchange points between the combined rail and other railroads, and by allowing shippers to require the combined two railroads, they're going to have to justify any rate increases they make that are greater than the rate of inflation.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 15:43
That all sounds very promising for shippers, but did the Surface Transportation Board say anything about safety? Of course the one thing that comes to mind right now is the recent Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Ben Ames, Senior News Editor, DC Velocity 15:56
Yes, and the STB decision actually mentioned that Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine by name — and by the way, that Norfolk Southern crash has been in the news again this week because the state of Ohio just sued Norfolk Southern to make sure that they do complete that cleanup, both over the near term and the long run. But the STB said that the new merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern would improve industry safety overall — that's not withstanding the derailment — because they said that rail is by far the safest means of transporting freight, including hazardous materials. So when they say that rail is safest, what they're contrasting it with, is trucking. So here, the STB found that the combined Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern would likely be able to attract about 64,000 truckloads per year away from the roads, where they're hauled by trucks, and more to rail, where they'll be hauled by trains. So, the STB said that would help, you know, reduce road congestion, obviously, less emissions, and improve transportation safety as well. Another part of safety that they mentioned is the enormous length of freight trains. If you live near where one of these lines runs, then you know that they can run multiple miles long, these freight trains. It's what, part of what makes them so efficient, because they can have an enormous load running. But, you know, those super-long trains are obviously hard to stop. Also, they block road crossings for a long time. So, another of those conditions that I mentioned that the STB set for the combination is that these new combined companies, they have to avoid blocking any public crossing for longer than 10 minutes. And, you know, toward that the STB cited the two companies', the merger companies here, estimate that actually their average train length after the merger is going to shrink. Currently, the average length for the two is about 1.8 miles, but after the merger, they're predicting it'll be about 1.4 miles long. Still long, but the STB saw an improvement there.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 18:09
Right. Well, railroads have been with us for over 150 years, but they still really remain one of the most efficient ways to move our nation's freight. Thanks, Ben.
Ben Ames, Senior News Editor, DC Velocity 18:19
Yeah, glad to do it.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 18:21
And Victoria, you wrote a story for this month's DC Velocity that highlights how the use of different technologies work together with very productive results. Can you share the details?
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 18:32
Yes, absolutely, Dave. So, yeah, this is the result of some reporting I did for DC Velocity's March issue, which is out this month. Warehouse automation projects that blend voice- and vision-based picking with robotics are on the rise, and that's for many reasons, but a big one is because systems integrators and technology developers are looking for ways to help customers maximize their labor resources while also speeding productivity on the warehouse floor. The experts I spoke to say tying these kinds of technologies together can deliver sort of the ultimate inefficiency. So, you have robots handling the heavy-lifting tasks, such as conveyance through the building, and pickers getting faster and more accurate by using voice- and vision-based wearables to direct their movements. Things like smart glasses, ring scanners, wrist-mounted computers, wireless headsets. I spoke to some systems integrators, as well as technology and equipment developers, to learn more about some specific projects that companies have undertaken recently, and that was really to give our readers an idea of what's possible.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 19:36
What did you find out in your research?
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 19:39
Yeah, well, well, quite a bit, and it's always great to listen to stories about these kinds of technologies being put to work. One project that I learned about pairs the use of smart glasses from a company called Picavi with an automated storage and retrieval system, or AS/RS, from AutoStore. Our listeners will, many of them will be like be familiar with those technologies. In this case, goods are stored in the AutoStore system, with work with workers at the system's pick stations using the smart glasses for a couple of things: multi-order picking out of containers, as well as for more complex multi-order put applications. Both of the systems connect directly to the facility's warehouse warehouse management system, or WMS, and the combined benefits there include less stress and strain on the workers, thanks to the AS/RS — you know, they're not walking and moving things around — and optimized piece picking from the smart-glasses solution. Another project that I learned about blends the use of autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs, with voice-directed picking. In a nutshell, the AMRs are dispatched to a location in the warehouse where they pick up a pallet or a case, and then they bring it to a predetermined pick zone. From there, pickers, who are outfitted with wrist-mounted mobile computers and wireless headsets, meet the AMRs at that designated zone after they receive a voice command telling them where to go. The picker performs the necessary picking tasks at that location, and it goes on like that throughout the day. When the AMR finishes its route, it picks up a batch of the finished orders from its last stop and then delivers them to the packing area. This is a project that was developed by systems integrator Numina Group, and it's in use at a couple of different facilities, and leaders there say the goal is really to get people moving simultaneously with the AMRs as a way to kind of speed everything up. And, again, the benefits here: less stress and strain on the workers — the AMRs are doing the heavy lifting — and more efficient picking. So, really, these are examples of blending technologies to create a smoother, more efficient operation. And as I said at the outset, this story is in our current issue, so readers can find more details by turning to turning to it online or in print.
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 21:52
Sounds like a good story. We look forward to reading it. Thanks, Victoria.
Victoria Kickham, Senior Editor, DC Velocity 21:56
David Maloney, Editorial Director, DC Velocity 21:58
We encourage listeners to go to DCVelocity.com for more on these and other supply chain stories, and check out the podcast Notes section for some direct links on the topics that we discussed today.
And our thanks to Steve Smith of Airlink for being our guest. We welcome your comments on this topic and our other stories; you can email us at email@example.com.
We also encourage you to subscribe to Logistics Matters at your favorite podcast platform. Our new episodes are uploaded on Fridays.
Speaking of subscribing, check out our sister podcast series Supply Chain in the Fast Lane, coproduced with the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals and Supply Chain Quarterly. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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Speaking of ProMat, it is being held next week in Chicago and our full team will be there. We'll be spending the entire time reporting on the show, and you can check out DC Velocity for details of our reports, but since we will be there, we will not be here next Friday. So instead, join us in two weeks on March 31 for our next episode of Logistics Matters. We will see you then. Thanks for joining us.
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