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Business is booming for the intrepid aviators of SkyLink, who fly relief missions into war and disaster zones. But while the money is great, the risks are enormous and the price of carelessness is death - by John Gray

SkyLink CEO Walter ArbibAn earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale has just turned what were once homes and offices in northwest Turkey into giant tombs. Thousands are dead and thousands more are dying, trapped in structures that look like trampled dollhouse. The US government has hired SkyLink, a Toronto aviation company, to fly a team of 72 specially trained search-and-rescue workers from Virginia to the scene-fast. Every minute's delay means another life lost. And now there's a problem. The plane secured for the job can't handle the team of six dogs that will sniff through the wreckage for signs of life.

"No, no! These are special dogs! They can't go in the cargo hold, they can't be in cages at all," SkyLink CEO Walter Arbib, a 58-year-old former Israeli travel agent, barks into a speakerphone to one of his managers in the company's Frankfurt office.

The clock is ticking. If the rescue team is not in Turkey within hours, it's unlikely it will find anyone alive. But as Arbib paces around SkyLink headquarters in Toronto's exclusive Rosedale neighborhood on this humid August night, he doesn't seem overly worried. This is a routine humanitarian mission in a business where failure to meet a deadline doesn't just mean you won't get paid, it means people will die. On this job, though, no one will shoot at SkyLink planes as they did in Sarajevo or Kosovo. Flight crews will not come under machine-gun and grenade attack as they did in Angola. And no one will be eaten by sharks as in Somalia, when a hapless employee took a badly timed swim to relax from the high-risk Work of flying humanitarian supplies and peace-keepers to the world's hot spots.

A few more phone calls and Arbib has lined up a plane that will carry both man and highly trained beast. In a matter of hours, the crew and its dogs will be pulling survivors from the twisted rubble. It is all in a day's work for SkyLink Aviation Inc., an elite member of the small fraternity of aviation companies that specializes in flying humanitarian relief supplies anywhere, anytime and under any conditions. (SkyLink's competitors in the field of logistics include Danzas Management Ltd., headquartered in Basel, Switzerland and Schenker International, based in Essen; Germany.) In the decade since the private company won its first contract with the United Nations (UN), SkyLink has grown from a small Toronto air travel wholesaler with five employees and annual revenue of about $5 million into an international humanitarian supply logistics company with more than 300 employees, seven offices on three continents and revenue of almost $250 million last year.

While few Canadians know the company by name, many have heard of its missions.
Some of SkyLink's recent high-profile flights included transporting Canadian peace-keepers destined for East Timor to Australia in October. SkyLink pilots dodged bullets as they flew the first food drop into Kosovo days before NATO ceased its bombing runs this past June. It was also the first western airline allowed to land in North Korea in April when the US government hired it to deliver potato seeds to the famine-ravaged country.

But while SkyLink's aircraft have come under fire from Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and UNITA rebels in Angola, one of the most damaging attacks came from what was once SkyLink's own best customer- the UN. This July, the company emerged victorious from a bitter five-year battle with the UN to regain both its reputation and access to lucrative contracts suspended after the international body accused it of a litany of malpractices ranging from rigging contracts to safety violations. An arbitration panel dismissed the charges against SkyLink and labeled two UN reports critical of its performance as "seriously flawed" and "the product of incompetence."

The loss of the UN business was a potentially fatal blow for SkyLink. Within two years of securing its first UN contract in 1989, the fledgling company was taking the lion's share of UN contracts; its UN work, worth about US$100 million annually, accounted for about 80% of its revenue. The allegations stemmed from complaints from one of its main competitors, Evergreen Helicopters Inc., an Oregon-based company. Evergreen wrote letters to the UN accusing SkyLink of bidding irregularities.

SkyLink also faced charges of safety violations, but all the allegations were ultimately dismissed.
The UN ban temporarily sullied SkyLink's name-and, according to Arbib, cost it more than US$41.5 million in lost business, which he had hoped to recoup through arbitration. But the panel determined that it could not award the claim without proof that the Canadian aviator had been the victim of an organized anti-SkyLink conspiracy. "We fought to clear our name and maintain our integrity," says Arbib. "We didn't get the money, but if I have to choose between my reputation and money, I will choose my reputation every time."

SkyLink agreed to a US$6.9 Million settlement with the UN in 1994, but claimed a bureaucratic vendetta resulted in its subsequent bids being routinely rejected. In one instance, the UN temporarily rejected a bid to supply helicopters to a UN mission in Kenya after a SkyLink official placed an "X" on a dotted line on a form, rather than putting the "X" inside a box. "We had meetings with the UN where they said we were landing on dusty landing pads in Angola," says Jan Ottens, SkyLink's general manager. "It was Angola! We were landing in the desert." SkyLink is now back on the UN's approved bidding list. And last month, it won its first major UN contract since the ban: transporting Canadian peace-keepers to Australia en route to East Timor, the scene of recent fighting.

To take on the UN and win meant navigating a political minefield, something Walter Arbib is no stranger to. After all, he learned the travel business in the political labyrinth of the Middle East. Arbib discovered early on that political uncertainty could also mean opportunity. When the Israel-Egypt peace accord was signed in 1979, it was supposed to allow Israelis to cross the border into Egypt for the first time, at least in theory. But with many details still to be worked out, Arbib decided to test the waters by organizing free bus tours and the first yacht cruise from the Jewish state to Egypt. He loaded tourists, members of the US Embassy and a Miss Israel beauty pageant contestant onto the Gabriella, a powerboat, to cruise the Mediterranean en route to Port Said. Their arrival was not met with open arms, but after a tense six-hour detention in the harbor and a detour to nearby Port Fuad, the vessel was allowed to dock-and Arbib's passengers were welcomed as guests of Egypt's then-president Anwar Sadat. Within months, Arbib was organizing regular tours to Egypt. And to this day, he continues to see opportunity in politics. During this May's Israeli elections, SkyLink organized charter flights for 1,600 Israeli citizens living in Canada and the US to fly back home, vote and return as early as the next day.

As Arbib's travel business flourished in the '70s, he organized tours and transportation for the 6,000 US 6th Fleet troops who would dock in Israel. It was here that he got his first glimpse of a potentially lucrative market: providing troop transportation services for the military. But it was not until Arbib decided to move to Canada in 1988 that he was able to exploit the opportunity fully. "Israel had a lot of political baggage that Canada does not have," he explains.

Arbib partnered with Surjit Babra, who was running a small two-room air travel wholesale business in Toronto. Babra, an immigrant himself, was born in India and lived in the UK before moving to Canada in 1979. The two, who met through business associates, now run SkyLink's humanitarian relief business, as well as a group of companies that includes an air courier business and a lucrative airline ticket brokering company with annual revenue of S125 million. They also have full ownership of Dollar Rent A Car, which currently has more than 50 locations across Canada, and expects to double to 100 over the next year.

One year after Arbib came to Canada, the partners won their first UN contract: providing transportation for troop rotations to Namibia to keep the peace and oversee the country's first free election. SkyLink leased planes to fly peace-keepers into the civil-war-ravaged southwest African nation and soon its responsibilities grew. It began flying troops within the country and used its ticket brokering capabilities to organize vacations for soldiers on leave. The mission was one of the most successful in UN peacekeeping history. The warring factions were separated. Observers ensured the subsequent election was clean. There has been relative calm in Namibia ever since.

Few companies were able to scramble planes to the far corners of the globe on short notice to move troops and supplies. Even fewer were willing to put their equipment and personnel at risk to work in war zones. But the potential rewards were worth it. The value of such contracts can range from tens of thousands of dollars for a simple supply drop with no danger to tens of millions for a long-term contract amid civil strife.

To serve this market, Arbib needed access to planes and helicopters that could operate under the most difficult conditions-and the tough and savvy pilots who could fly them. SkyLink currently has about 12 of its own planes and four helicopters. But the company has instant access to hundreds of leasable aircraft around the world. At one point, SkyLink had more than 120 aircraft deployed with the UN alone, working on missions in Angola, Cambodia, Somalia, Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia and Mozambique. Many of its aircraft are decommissioned Russian Antonov transports-including the Antonov 124, the world's largest cargo plane-and MI helicopters, legendary for their ability to fly under even the most precarious conditions.

There would be many times SkyLink would be grateful for the hearty Russian workhorses. During its Cambodia mission in 1992, Khmer Rouge guerrillas offered to pay a $5,000 bounty for every UN aircraft shot down. After one SkyLink flight, the crew counted 400 bullet holes in their plane. Lars Jensen, a former first lieutenant with the Danish military, was SkyLink's project manager during the heaviest fighting in Sarajevo. He remembers one particular flight where his pilot had to land one of the Russian planes on nothing but gas fumes after bullets punctured its fuel tanks while it was ferrying high-level peace negotiators out of the city. "I guess you can say that the meeting did not go well," he says.

SkyLink's pilots and work-around-theclock field managers are the backbone of the company's success. Arbib has recruited a mixed bag of combat-tested Russian aviators and Canadian bush pilots accustomed to working under extreme conditions. Pilots earn a base salary of between $60,000 and $70,000, plus hefty expenses.

The greatest risks come not from the assignments they've been contracted for, but rather from the dangerous emergency ad hoc missions that arise while they're in the field-missions that SkyLink is not always paid for. "Don't get me wrong, we are not here to be a philanthropic organization

We are here to make money," says Arbib. "But when you are in the situation and someone asks for help, what do you do: stand by and do nothing? Of course not." SkyLink got many such cries for help during its work in Angola, recalls Bjorn Loken, a former captain in the Norwegian army who joined the company in 1992 to work as a project manager in the African nation during its bloody civil war. When Loken arrived, fighting was heavy throughout the country. UNITA rebels had pushed into Luanda, the capital, and massacred an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people in a single weekend. Bodies choked the streets faster than government garbage trucks could carry them away. In the end, people disposed of the corpses by placing burning tires on them-two tires for adults and one for children. Sometimes, Loken says, he can still smell the black, acrid mixture of burning rubber and flesh.

Early one summer morning in Angola, Loken got a desperate call from a UN official begging him to evacuate an injured UN observer from an outpost deep in the jungle. Flights had been grounded for days because fighting had cut SkyLink's crews off from the only road to the airport. But Loken had been under fire before as an army officer in Beirut and south Lebanon. When he asked his Russian crew members to go on the mission, they initially refused; they finally agreed to fly the mission when the Norwegian volunteered to get them to the airport.

Driving a stripped-down Nissan SUV, Loken kept one eye on the road looking for newly disturbed dirt that could indicate a freshly laid land mine and another on the surrounding buildings to watch for snipers and bandits. Suddenly, he noticed the street had become very still and quiet. "There wasn't a single cat or anything on the road and I thought, shit, there is something wrong here," he recalls. "So I applied the brakes and the same second an RPG almost went over the hood of the car and exploded into the building next to me."

The air then filled with the sharp, sickening pings of ricocheting bullets as machine-gun fire rained down on the SkyLink team, piercing its truck. One pilot panicked and opened the door to flee, but Loken grabbed his shirt and pulled him back, knowing that if anyone got out of the vehicle, even for a second, he would be cut down instantly. While the crew ducked behind the seats to avoid being hit, Loken hit the gas pedal and turned the steering wheel sharply to escape between two abandoned buildings.

Not every SkyLink employee is so lucky. A rebel missile downed a company plane in Angola in 1992. The Russian pilot managed to land safely with his five UN passengers. What he didn't realize, however, was that he had crash-landed in a minefield. When he got out to inspect the damage, he was killed instantly in an explosion. (Another SkyLink pilot had to rescue the survivors with a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter.) In 1997, a Canadian pilot and three Finnish peace-keepers were killed when a SkyLink Bell helicopter hit power lines and plunged into a Macedonian lake.
Although they don't draw gunfire or put their lives on the line, the company's office staff in Toronto is essential in getting any SkyLink flight off the ground. Once a government or humanitarian organization calls for bids, SkyLink employees often have less than three hours to determine if they can fulfill the mission requirements. SkyLink personnel always bid, even if they know they can't be competitive. Its customers only have time to ask a handful of companies to tender on each contract-and they want to ensure
that no call to SkyLink is a wasted call.
Once a contract is awarded, SkyLink has only hours to get its plane in the air or, if none of its aircraft is available, to lease one. While it could take several days to secure the paperwork needed for a flight through normal channels, SkyLink employees will call aviation officials at home in the middle of the night to secure flyover and landing permits. Even a simple thing like insurance is not so simple when you're flying into war zones and disaster areas. During its most active period between 1993 and 1994, SkyLink paid more than

US$7 million in war insurance alone. Now the company has its own in-house broker who can insure flights 24 hours a day.
A willingness to put employees' lives at risk is not a prerequisite to working in the highly charged humanitarian relief business. But according to John Abood, contract officer for the US Agency for International Development (US AID), a desire to do whatever it takes to ensure that relief supplies make it into the hands of those who desperately need them is essential. US AID distributes about US$1 billion a year in food and other humanitarian supplies. And when Abood has a difficult job that absolutely needs doing, SkyLink is one of only three or four companies around the globe he can rely on.

"I have been in fields where farmers have lost their crops, people have lost their homes or everything has been knocked down by a hurricane," he says. "I take very personally the needs of those people and I look for contractors that feel the same way. SkyLink handled some airdrops for us into Kosovo during the end of hostilities there and their plane was shot at. Did that deter them from continuing their contract? No, it did not."

Outside SkyLink's Toronto office, the November wind and rain are bringing the first winter chill to the city. Halfway across the world, one of the strongest cyclones to hit India this century has killed 3,000 to 5,000 people and aid workers are predicting the death toll will climb. Inside his warm and dry office, Walter Arbib is on the phone again. The Indian government has put out a call for help and SkyLink is on high alert anticipating a call for its services. "When disasters like this strike, even the bureaucracy is taken by surprise," says Arbib. "But we have planes, trucks and everything lined up. When we get the call, we are instantly ready."

The cyclone and deadly tidal surges have leveled entire coastal regions. In Bhubaneswar, 200,000 people, almost one in six residents, have lost their homes, and millions more throughout the area are without shelter. It will take months- and hundreds of shipments of humanitarian supplies-to repair the damage. Arbib wants his company to make many of those runs. This month, SkyLink is extending its supply capabilities with a venture to ship humanitarian supplies for long-term missions by sea as well as air. This will allow the company to bid on even larger long-term contracts without the stress of having to complete the mission in a matter of days.

For Arbib, the growth of SkyLink is not without some mixed emotions. When business is good, it means somewhere in the world there are people suffering from either a natural disaster or their inability to resolve conflict without war and violence. But when SkyLink is good, it means that suffering is alleviated a little more quickly. "I could have gone into a normal business and sent tourists on holiday," Arbib says. "Nothing compares with the satisfaction I get when I turn on the television and see disasters and wars and know that we are there helping."

John Gray - Canadian Business

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