SPECIAL REPORT

If there’s a global hot spot, SkyLink’s planes are there

A unique Toronto firm does a thriving business going where others fear to fly

PETER C. NEWMAN August 29 2005
SPECIAL REPORT

If there’s a global hot spot, SkyLink’s planes are there

A unique Toronto firm does a thriving business going where others fear to fly

PETER C. NEWMAN August 29 2005

If there’s a global hot spot, SkyLink’s planes are there

SPECIAL REPORT

THE NEW-CANADIAN ESTABLISHMENT

A unique Toronto firm does a thriving business going where others fear to fly

PETER C. NEWMAN

THE SUCCESS-ORIENTED newcomers I’ve interviewed so far for this series on the New-Canadian Establishment have been conventional entrepreneurs who took risks by staking their future in the northern part of the New World. But having arrived here, they have taken pride in how quickly and how well they have conformed to their Canadian role models. They have learned that to be successful in this country requires living an orderly existence—the avoidance of anything unpredictable, such as engaging in commerce with global agitators to whom one has not been properly introduced.

Walter Arbib, a Libyan Jew, and Surjit Babra, an East African Sikh, who run and own SkyLink Aviation Inc., a little-known Torontobased company of adventurers, are driven by exactly the opposite, off-beat instincts. The firm dispatches its planes to the world’s most

turbulent back alleys and furthest frontiers. Its employees arrive as good Samaritans courting danger, and ff equendy find it. Although their prime missions are to deliver medicines and food, ferry aid workers, evacuate refugees and provide logistical support through air drops, their planes have been shot down and there have been serious casualties.

The firm’s founding partners are constantly in flight and flux, operating on civilization’s wilder shores, their days filled with urgent assignments to provide instant relief from natural disasters, wars, the perditions of genocide, or such mundane requests as supplying specially fitted planes for packs of bloodhounds and their handlers (who refused to take off if their animals were forced to travel caged in cargo) to Turkey, where the dogs were assigned to sniff out earthquake survivors.

On any given day, up to 120 aircraft bearing SkyLink’s corporate logo (all but 18 of them leased) pursue various missions impossible on four continents, guided by the firm’s founding partners. Arbib is this odd couple’s adrenalin-propelled, gung-ho drum major, ready to take on almost any risk that might improve the human condition. He is one of those rare people who glow in the dark with good intentions but, unlike most of us, he can actually do something about them. His turban-clad partner, Babra, is much more analytical but equally intense, his altruistic impulses diluted with bottom-line realism. The two men present very different demeanours and their management styles are almost contradictory. But they share

the same fever in the blood, so much that they finish not only each others’ sentences but often each others’ thoughts. “We are very different personalities,” Babra told me, “but the outcome of our thinking is usually the same. There’s a huge bond between us. We must have been together in a previous life.”

The company’s turnover this year will be around $400 million; there are no other shareholders. Both families live well but not as extravagantly as they could, since nearly all profits are reinvested. (Still, Arbib does drive a Maserati and Babra a Mercedes-Benz.)

Their differences in temperament are due mostly to their very different backgrounds. Born in the Punjab region of India, Babra, now 54, grew up in East Africa, trained as a travel agent in London and moved to Canada in 1979. He had a tough start, operating a two-room office. “When I first came to Canada, suppliers required three references just to drop water bottles in the office,” he complains. He met Arbib nearly 10 years later and they decided to join energies. If Arbib is possessed of genuine sympathy for survivors, it’s because he is one.

He was born in Tunis 64 years ago to an upper-class Jewish family. After the Second World War, they were living in Libya, where a pogrom forced them to flee when Arbib was nine. Educated in Italy, he then moved to Israel where, like Babra, he went into the travel business, then

Shared humanitarian and spiritual concerns help form a powerful bond between the ‘very different personalities’ of SkyLink partners Babra and Arbib

left for Canada in 1988 and joined Babra in SkyLink.

The company’s permanent payroll has since grown to about 600, including Russian aviators and Canadian bush pilots. The firm’s main animators are deliberately picked to represent most of the world’s cultures; the partners themselves speak four languages each. The firm has offices in Ottawa, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Frankfurt, Moscow, Lisbon, Dubai, Baghdad, Khartoum and Darfur, where 15 of its helicopters are operating on behalf of the Canadian government. Their main clients are the United Nations, the Pentagon, the Red Cross, the Italian government, the Israeli government, various international aid agencies, NATO and Canada’s Department of National Defence. An arm of the company operates a thriving tourism business as a profitable backup to their more daring ventures, with nine million negotiated airline fares available annually to its wholesale customers. “I don’t like passengers,” Babra confesses. “They complain too much. I prefer cargo.”

The aircraft they lease are the most modem available, but operational decisions are taken in a surprisingly low-tech room in SkyLink’s low-rise Rosedale headquarters. Aircraft locations and their flight plans are entered on a white blackboard in different coloured chalk. The company has access to insurance underwriters 24 hours a day so no time is wasted searching for a firm willing to undertake the risks involved. (The premium for one landing in Sarajevo to provide food for peacekeepers was $250,000. During 1994 alone, SkyLink spent $7 million on war insurance.)

SkyLink’s reputation is based on dependability and speed of response. That, of course, depends on the partners’ ability to predict the flow of political events. When I asked them what exotic sources of intelligence they use to get ahead of their competitors, they burst out laughing, and simultaneously revealed their secret: “We watch CNN! ” In fact, they have learned to anticipate the news, mainly by receiving reports from their people in the field. They invest time and planning in the handling of possible emergency

flights that might be involved in evolving situations before events warrant it. Once they do, SkyLink is ready to take off, even to countries that lack basic infrastructures. “What we do best is logistical management and on-time delivery,” says Babra. “We can start moving aircraft within three hours of notification, and our global contacts are used to being woken up at three in the morning for landing rights in some obscure airfield.”

When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia last Christmas season, for example, Arbib recalls, “Two minutes after we received the news, we had our people preparing themselves and getting aircraft ready. They departed three hours later and when we arrived, the flood waters were still on the runways.” SkyLink itself contributed emergency pharmaceuticals and flew out some Italian vacationers stranded in the Maldives.

A log of the firm’s assignments reads like the history of our turbulent times: it ferried Canadian troops and equipment to help out with the devastating 1998 ice storm in Ontario and Quebec; operated rescue flights during the student riots in Jakarta and the Eritrea-Ethiopia border clashes of the same year; flew to Afghanistan, Taiwan, Turkey and Honduras to provide earthquake relief; delivered a load of potato seeds to North Korea, using a leased U.S. jet, the first American flag-aircraft allowed to land there.

An Angolan rebel missile downed a company plane in 1992, killing the pilot. When the Cambodian Khmer Rouge offered a bounty for every UN aircraft shot down, one of SkyLink’s helicopters limped home with hundreds of bullet holes. The company dropped food supplies for aid workers over Kosovo, expressly against NATO’s directives; distributed ballot boxes during Iraq’s stormy election; and flew the only civilian aircraft (loaded with donated medical supplies) to land at an uncontrolled airstrip in Najaf, the Shia Muslim nerve centre and one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities.

Arbib’s own favourite, history-making mission was the return to Ethiopia by SkyLink of a 1,700-year-old holy obelisk that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had plundered when he conquered the

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North African country in 1937. Located in the ancient city of Aksum, the sacred object weighs 160 tonnes and is 24 m high, the equivalent of a nine-storey building. Mussolini, who saw it as a symbol of his fascist might, hacked it into three pieces and brought it by ship back to Rome where it sat in the middle of a busy roundabout for 68 years. The Italian government repeatedly promised to return it, which proved difficult since the reconstituted Ethiopia no longer had a sea port.

Appreciating the importance of a nation’s cultural artifacts, Arbib became determined to fly the monument back to its rightful roost. That required helping Italy lease an Antonov An-124, the world’s second-largest aircraft—69 m long, with a payload capacity of 150 tonnes—from Ukraine. “At that stage, I told the Italians, ‘Okay, we are ready to do it,’ ” says Arbib. He also made it clear that SkyLink didn’t want money for the job—just two statements from the minister of foreign affairs. “ The first was that Italy was proud to be returning something it had looted during the war, and that it hoped the world will follow this example and return stolen works of art. The second was that I wanted to pay Italy back for what it did to help the Jews arriving there after the war in 1967.” The Italians agreed and the obeklisk was returned to Aksum (where the local runways had to be extended to accommodate the giant aircraft) in three flights between April 18 and 24 this year.

For Babra, the equivalent mission of the heart was a flight the previous April carrying 149 Sikh holy scrolls from the Golden Temple of Amritsar in northern India to Toronto, to replace tattered copies in Canadian shrines. Since these sacred objects are accorded the same reverence as living gurus, each of the holy books was strapped into its own linen-draped seat. “We were saying prayers all along, 24 hours without sleeping,” Babra recalls. “There were only five Sikh holy men and myself, plus a cameraman; no passengers, no cargo. The winds were very heavily against us, and the pilot came to me and said, ‘We may have to go to Ottawa to refuel because the winds are strong.’ We had many people waiting for us in Toronto.

He went to a lower altitude and the winds dropped for some time, so we landed where we were expected, only half an hour late. For me, that was a miracle on the flight, and hardly anybody knows that.”

While the partners thrive on miracles and catastrophes, they also serve humanitarian causes without pay. When they heard about legs being blown off innocent children in Mozambique, they financed a local training centre for demining the countryside. They also help sponsor an international link between Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and African infirmaries to provide emergency medical advice. When one of their pilots assigned to evacuate UN personnel from Rwanda reported finding 900 abandoned children with no facilities, they played a major role in setting up a temporary orphanage. “You go to a country, you become part of that country—to sleep at night, you have to do something,” is Arbib’s simple explanation.

The puzzle remains why this most global of international enterprises has chosen Canada as its headquarters. “It is the best place in the world to be,” Arbib maintains. “It’s like a second Switzerland. You are welcome wherever you are, and the diversity of the people in this country is like nowhere else. Strategically, it provides access to all the international communities. Canada has good relations with most countries, and since we are in peacekeeping, this is the best country to operate from. Canada allows newcomers to maintain their identities. Once you go to the States they want you to become American and forget where you came from.”

After interviewing SkyLink’s lively partners for most of a day, I remark that at times they seem to be as much in showbiz as the humanitarian rescue business. “We’ve never initiated any event for show business purposes,” Babra sternly replies. “Life and death are at stake in many of our missions.” But then Arbib points out that their upcoming flights will include airlifting a dying elephant back to his original African haunts, and perhaps delivering the opera Tosca to allied troops in Afghanistan this Christmas. I rest my case. I?il