Feed the world
Pilots flying into war zones and disaster areas may be risking their lives. But the World Food Programme's Samir Sajet insists providing aid relief is a vital role.
What is the United Nations' involvement in the aviation industry?
In the UN there are two bodies dealing with aviation. One is in New York and this is the department of peace keeping. It deals with peacekeeping forces and is a totally separate operation from what we do.
The other body deals with humanitarian air services, which is located in Italy, and that takes care of the World Food Programme (WFP).
The programme's mandate is to take care of humanitarian air services on behalf of all UN agencies. It transports food, non-food items and passengers such as UN officials and diplomats.
For the WFP offices, we have one dealing with operations and contracting and the other concentrating on aviation safety.
The first focuses on contracts with air carriers and aircraft chartering, while the aviation safety mandate is to select a good operator or carrier that complies with international standards.
To do this, we first hear from air carriers willing to deal with us and other service providers. We then provide air carriers with our safety requirements and check whether they comply.
For example, we have to make sure they meet our standards for registration, operations and maintenance. After that, we evaluate the company's risk based on its standard and decide whether or not we can work with it.
If we can, the air carrier will be registered with us contacted when we need aircraft. If the risk is unacceptable, we will get in touch and provide recommendations.
What risks might you find in some charter operators?
They may not follow the right maintenance schedule or implement safety recommendations. We evaluate the company's risk mitigation and the amount it invests in safety. For example, a pilot might not be trained for the job, so this person may need to undergo certain training.
We have six areas to look at during a visit, which are organisation structure, ground and flight operations, the aircraft, air worthiness, training of staff, and aviation security and safety.
After that we try to improve the operator's safety and culture, as well as maintenance.
We are dealing with operators that have ageing aircraft, so our main objective is to see whether this operator has an ageing programme to maintain the aircraft to a level that we consider acceptable.
Which aircraft companies do you work with?
The UN doesn't have its own aircraft, so it always charters planes. There are many ways to do this, whether it's long or short-term. Usually, we don't deal with big airlines because they have their own business.
They have scheduled flights, so we go with chartering companies. We don't use 747s; we go for medium-sized aircraft such as 737-400s for our operations in Afghanistan.
We are mostly dealing with ex-Soviet Union aircraft to transport food and non-food items. We have five strategic bases in different regions with warehouses containing food and can move supplies to all locations for any natural disaster.
Are many companies you work with based in the Middle East?
Our main operators are in Russia, the Ukraine and Moldova. We also have them in South Africa and Kenya but we are now starting to work with companies in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as others in the UAE.
We want to expand; we've started talks with GCC countries and are trying to get more companies on board as service providers.
As a charity, do you receive cheaper rates for chartering aircraft?
Business is business and we don't usually get cheaper rates. We have never had an air carrier sponsor that provides aircraft free of charge. Most of our operations are supported by donors that either represents the European Union or US organisations.
Countries like Denmark, Germany and Switzerland donated to ensure this operation continues.
You recently held a pilot safety management programme in Sharjah. What did it involve?
One task for our office is to improve the safety culture among all operators by visiting and auditing them, especially ones in Asia and the UAE. We find some don't invest much in training; they don't send their pilots on courses to update their knowledge.
The safety management course will, by 2009, be mandatory for all operators and airports to implement.
We have an idea of conducting such courses in Johannesburg, Nairobi and UAE.
The one in Sharjah was free of charge because we asked big companies to sponsor the course, with people from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka attending.
We also had local and Russian companies here. The maximum number of attendees was 40 seats, but we still had many people trying to get involved. We will try to have another course, may be this year or next, and invite people from Asia and the Middle East.
What training did you provide during the course?
It's based on aviation safety and how we can prevent an accident from happening. It's a safety precaution and accident prevention programme.
There are poor air space structures and limited air traffic control that can lead to accidents, runway incursions or security breaches, so pilots need training to avoid these all these problems.
How dangerous are the territories that WFP pilots operate in?
I was in West Africa in Sierra Leone and then North Kenya. I was responsible for operations in south Sudan and spent three years in Afghanistan.
We brief all people and let them know they will operate in difficult environments in terms of security, air traffic control and space structure.
To mitigate the risks, we ask for fully qualified pilots with excellent experience while also making sure certain equipment is onboard the aircraft. When the crew arrives we give them a security briefing about which area they will operate in.
Have any of your planes been attacked by terrorists?
Afghanistan has many hazards such as the airspace; the structure there is not that good. The space between aircrafts in flight is sometimes only 500 ft.
We have different types of aircraft operating in the area, with some carrying transponders for locating planes in the sky.
If this transponder isn't working an aircraft will not be able to identify the other plane.
All our pilots provide reports for each operation and we come up with recommendations to address any problems. We also speak with the authorities and NATO to inform them about any issues.
Weather is a big factor in Afghanistan; it is very cold in the winter with poor visibility and low clouds obstructing landings and take-offs.
If pilots are unable to fly then they don't; we never take risks and cancel flights if necessary.
There may be a good ground system, but in remote areas this won't be the case and that's particularly true in Afghanistan.
Are some operators reluctant to get involved because of safety reasons?
There are a lot of operators and everybody is looking for a job. I would not say we are paying good money but we are offering work. Aircraft operators and crew without a job suffer heavy losses but giving a job guarantees money.
Companies come to us and at the beginning of our operations we would go for the lowest price. But now, there are a lot of other factors to consider. We will see how much a particular operator has done in terms of training and safety.
We choose the operator that has well trained pilots and continual investment in safety. The idea is to prevent accidents; we don't want to see one here in the UAE, Asia, Pakistan or anywhere, so we invite everybody to our training courses.
We have limited seats so it's first come, first serve. We are planning a series of courses, including aviation security and human factor. It is a series of courses to prevent accidents from happening.
Apart from safety, how else will these courses improve pilots?
We have operations in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and West Africa. Those operations involve local and international guys, many of whom do not get the chance to participate in the training.
These guys want to improve their aviation knowledge, so my concern is to bring them here and provide training. They generally don't get the chance to participate in any training, so I want them brought here.
Because we have limited resources, we are looking for people to sponsor this task and courses. We are giving people food, security and education. Sometimes we are feeding a family for the children to go to school.
I am sure in this part of the world there are lots of people willing to help because our mandate is humanitarian and we don't profit from this.
I'm a pilot with 30 years experience and I possibly need this course as well, but the guy in the field dealing with the aircraft, passengers, equipment and cargo perhaps needs this more than I do.