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
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
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."
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.
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
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
"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
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