On Board Norwegian’s UNICEF Dreamliner Flight to Djibouti

Oct 1, 2017

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Inaugural flights are always a special and exciting AvGeek experience. I’ve been fortunate to take my fair share of inaugural flights throughout the years, but the unveiling of Norwegian’s brand new Boeing 787-9 in UNICEF livery takes the cake for most memorable, in more ways than one. Our inaugural flight was a humanitarian flight from Copenhagen to Djibouti, the capital of the small nation of the same name in the Horn of Africa.

Next week, the Dreamliner — delivered from the factory to Norwegian on September 13 — will be ferrying passengers around the world. But when we touched down on Tuesday on the scorching hot tarmac of the Djibouti airport, the 787 was doing something else: saving the lives of Yemeni children who had fled the war in their country, just across the Red Sea. In the cargo holds there wasn’t a single piece of passenger luggage. Instead, they were packed to the brim with 28 tons of emergency aid destined for Yemen.

On the plane, I was one of 10 people who had bid at an auction to be part of this special mission, with 100% of the proceeds from the charity auction going directly to UNICEF. The auction raised more than $50,000.

Loading humanitarian cargo in Copenhagen, with the 787 in the background (Image by Angelina Aucello)
Loading humanitarian cargo in Copenhagen, with the 787 in the background (Image by Angelina Aucello)

The relationship between  Norwegian and UNICEF, the United Nations’ agency for children, is not something new. The European low-cost carrier has put together several humanitarian missions delivering emergency aid via aircraft before. Prior to the introduction of the UNICEF-liveried 787,  the airline has used a 737, also in UNICEF livery, to deliver aid to the Central African Republic, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, and Mali.

Yemen has been in conflict since early 2015, and now the poorest nation in the Arab world is also facing a cholera outbreak the United Nations called “the worst in the world.” Millions of people are in need of humanitarian assistance. To do our part helping them, our flight was jam-packed with medicine, highly nutritious foods, and early-development learning supplies like books and toys for Yemeni children.

Getting into Yemen itself is almost impossible, and the closest port where it is safe to deliver humanitarian aid is Djibouti. That’s exactly where we were headed. Djibouti is also home to several UNICEF refugee camps, including the largest in the world for Yemeni refugees.

Our mission began on Monday in Copenhagen, where a small group of us joined a handful of UNICEF and Norwegian executives to visit the UNICEF supply and logistics headquarters in Denmark, which is also home to the largest humanitarian warehouse in the world.

The UNICEF warehouse for humanitarian goods in Copenhagen (Image by Angelina Aucello)
The UNICEF warehouse for humanitarian goods in Copenhagen (Image by Angelina Aucello)

Before we knew it, it was time to head to Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport (CPH) to board flight DY9700 and start our 7-hour nonstop to JIB.

Before doing that, we got a reminder that this was not a flight like most others: We joined the folks at UNICEF and Norwegian Air Shuttle, including founder and CEO Bjørn Kjos, in the hands-on loading of cargo.

Norwegian CEO Bjørn Kjos (in sunglasses) helps load the 787 in Copenhagen (Image by Angelina Aucello)
Norwegian CEO Bjørn Kjos (in sunglasses) helps load the 787 in Copenhagen (Image by Angelina Aucello)

Once on board, with around 40 people on a plane with 344 seats, we had all the room we wanted to stretch out and socialize. About 2.5 hours into the flight, I put on my headset and started to doze off, when I heard that we were 35 minutes from landing. That was not the plan. Something had clearly gone wrong.

Eritrea and Ethiopia had both refused us entrance into their airspace, so we had to turn back, and the nearest best option was Athens. With special flights like these that are not regularly scheduled service, there are a lot of moving parts and things can get complex. This was certainly not a welcome twist to the journey, and it was also my very first diversion ever.

After we slept in Athens, we set off Tuesday afternoon for Djibouti. We finally made it there at 5:30pm local and helped offload the cargo in the sunset — but still in steamy 103-degree weather.

We also happened to be one day late because of the diversion, and our large party had been a no-show at the Sheraton Djibouti hotel as a consequence. The hotel’s general manager not only accommodated us one day after we had reserved, but also graciously waived the $8,300 no-show charge, in the spirit of our humanitarian mission.

While this was not a typical flight, it was also a way to experience Norwegian’s 787-9 Dreamliner in an unusual setting, with the plane to ourselves. The jet features 32 seats in premium economy with a 2-3-2 configuration and 46″ pitch, and 312 in economy with a 3-3-3 configuration and 31″-32″ inch pitch.

On board the 787 to Djibouti (Photo by Angelina Aucello)
On board the 787 to Djibouti (Photo by Angelina Aucello)

A cool perk of our special flight in particular was that everyone on board was able to enjoy a premium economy seat, which is a much wider and comfortable recliner seat. Each seat on board the aircraft has a touch screen and on-demand entertainment system, a power outlet and USB port.

Unicef 04 W class
The premium seats on the Norwegian 787-9 (Photo by Angelina Aucello)

With the new UNICEF Boeing 787-9, the total number of Dreamliners in the fleet is 12, out of a total of 34 to be delivered by 2020. And I was honored to be on one of them for such an important mission.

Angelina Aucello covers family travel for TPG and writes the blog Angelina Travels. Follow along with all her travel adventures on Twitter and Instagram.

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