Touching lives at 30,000 ft – CemAir CEO on flying supplies to Durban amid civil unrest

Miles van der Molen is the founder and chief executive of CemAir. As looting and civil unrest gripped the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, the aviation CEO (like many other selfless South Africans) took it upon himself to assist those in need, flying essential supplies to Durban in his own planes – and at his own cost. He joined BizNews founder Alec Hogg to discuss how CemAir helped when South Africa needed it most. – Jarryd Neves

Miles van der Molen on stepping up to help those in need:

These things crop up so quickly and one has to react fast – and help where it is needed. We’ve found in the past, that these times resolve themselves quite quickly. So the applicability of air transport is relatively short. It’s in the first days when the greatest shortage exists is when we’re needed and then once the road is open and large trucks go through, obviously they [have the] volumes that are required.

Because we’ve done a few things like this before, it all found us. We worked with the Knysna fires and during the repatriations last year and a few other things we’ve done. The people that work with these programmes all had our number and phoned us and said “help, there is a big need at the moment, can you assist?” We said yes.

On the practicalities of getting CemAir planes loaded with bread and supplies:

Simply put, we just provided an airlink. We’re running flights from Joburg into Durban anyway, to fly people out of Durban. A lot of people wanted to leave very badly. There weren’t that many people wanting to go to Durban at the time, so we had a lot of spare capacity. We used that space to fly food and other essentials, like medicine.

All our flights were to Gauteng. I know Safair did have flights directly to Cape Town, but we did not have the Cape Town leg. A lot of people continued with us on other legs. In fact, some to Cape Town, George and other places. But they did want to get out of Durban in quite a hurry.

On how much food and supplies CemAir took to Durban:

It must’ve been about 25 tons in the end. It spiked very quickly, Thursday was, sort of, the peak of the panic. The conversation’s probably started Tuesday afternoon. A lot of stuff started arriving Wednesday. By Thursday, it was just crazy. There’s a queue of cars literally down the road. Friday it started tapering off and by Saturday, the roads were open and some people came to fetch some stuff – to put on a truck – because we were just a bit behind.

On what the civil unrest reminded him of:

Durban got quite bad. The bit we saw, doing the service was very benign. We just saw King Shaka Airport, which is very controlled. But certainly, the pictures you see of some of the streets, with stuff strewn down it and things on fire – that’s right up there. It was a very serious situation.

On the supplies that were needed in Durban:

The bulk of the requests were for medicine items – chronic medication, insulin, that kind of stuff. Baby products like nappies and formula. We’ve seen before in difficult times, where baby products run short quite quickly. We worked with Ashraful, the aid organisation. They were very organised. It’s actually a very impressive organisation. They brought little hampers that were pre-packed with essentials that could go directly to families and support them. It contained essentials such as oil, meal and flour – stuff that you could make bread with.

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