In the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, AirAsia Regional Head of Operations Improvement Stuart Michael Cross went on a different kind of island hopping: bringing relief supplies and evacuating survivors of the typhoon which wrought massive destruction and loss of lives across the Visayan islands of Central Philippines. Stuart narrates his experiences on this humanitarian mission.
Our first humanitarian flight was into the town of Kalibo in Western Visayas, where we were able to fly in relief aid and evacuate our staff (mostly crew) and their families out. As we were the first and only airline to land after the typhoon, we filled our return flight to Manila with others in need of evacuation. Our goal was to restore operations in all AirAsia Zest destinations affected by Haiyan and make sure our staff were safe. Most crucial was Tacloban, which was reported to be virtually wiped out by a tsunami-like storm surge.
Upon arrival into Manila, we were told that we could mount another humanitarian flight to Cebu in Central Visayas, and from there, hopefully connect our teams and supplies onwards to Tacloban in Eastern Visayas via the Philippine military’s C-130. We carried more supplies and over 100 police officers on this flight. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get into Tacloban as it was past sunset. Flying in at night was impossible as the control tower was destroyed and there were no working lights anywhere, not least the runway.
In Cebu, we took 160 evacuees who had arrived on the C-130 from Tacloban and flew them back to Manila. We also left our Tacloban station manager TJ behind in Cebu with tents, generator and basic supplies so that he could continue efforts to get across to Tacloban. Thankfully, TJ managed to secure seats for himself and another staff the next day on a Philippine military flight.
Meanwhile, for those of us still in Manila, our determination to reach Tacloban was resolute but the airport was still closed to jet airplanes like our A320s. Four days after the typhoon, we were given seats into Tacloban via Cebu on a small aircraft. We had no real idea of where or how to find TJ but the objective was clear—bring supplies and a satellite phone, check that everyone is alright and find out who’s in charge on the ground so that we can start the Tacloban flights.
The situation that greeted us on arrival in Tacloban was beyond words. The sights, smells, devastation, heat and almost total disorganisation were all overwhelming. Fortunately, we found TJ and team quite quickly and could plan our next move.
Through the US Marines, I was able to meet the Philippine Navy commander on the ground in Tacloban and introduce him to TJ. “Who are you and what do you want?” were the commander’s first words to us. He was a difficult man to get an audience with, but he promised to remove all blocks to A320 operations in exchange for us carrying aid in and evacuees out.
True to his word, A320’s were allowed into Tacloban again by the time we arrived back into Cebu on the C-130 and so we started our flights. We have been flying to Tacloban since then.
As of last count, Haiyan has displaced up to 6 million people and left over 6,000 dead and nearly 1,800 still missing.
The people of the Philippines are determined to overcome the devastation. Tacloban, as with many other towns and villages, may have been physically and structurally destroyed but the continuous acts of kindness and compassion for the greater good of everyone seem to make it one of the purest places I have ever visited. It will take a long time to rebuild the city, but together, we can bring hope to those who suffered most because of this tragedy.
To find out how you can help in the relief and rebuilding efforts, please visit airasiafoundation.com/typhoonhaiyan.