Interview: Samir Sajet, World Food Programme
More than 800 people were recently surveyed by US-based website salary.com to find the world’s most glamorous professions, with a top five that included aircraft pilot, alongside the likes of fashion designer, surgeon, photographer and investment banker. The results, it seems, were based on a common perception that generous salaries, impressive working hours and endless international travel were all part of the job.
Although a pilot working at one of the Middle East’s leading airlines, such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, may relate to that description, the reality is a little different for their counterparts at the World Food Programme (WFP). Here, the aircraft are not equipped with luxurious amenities, they are not heading to fashionable holiday resorts, and even landing at well-developed airports with tarmac runways is not guaranteed.
“These pilots are heroes,” explains Samir Sajet, WFP’s regional aviation safety officer in the Middle East and Asia, who himself is a former pilot for the Iraq air force with 30 years of experience. “We are working in a number of difficult locations, where not only the terrain is bad, but the security as well. So there is a huge difference when you compare the pilots in our missions with those working in commercial passenger flights from Dubai to Paris.”
Originally conceived as a three-year experimental programme, WFP was established as part of the United Nations (UN) in 1961, with a mandate to save lives and prevent acute hunger in emergency situations – such as political conflicts and natural disasters – while also supporting countries to rebuild the livelihoods of their people and find solutions to hunger epidemics after such circumstances arise.
Over the past 50 years, it has proven invaluable in meeting these objectives, with recent missions including the delivery of vital food to more than 500,000 citizens affected by political unrest in Libya, such as displaced residents and migrant workers, in addition to vulnerable orphans, widows and disabled people. Cargo includes the WFP’s famous high energy biscuits – or HEBs as they’re known in the humanitarian world – which are commonly used as a form of food assistance in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. They contain vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients along with a dose of energy, which helps give disaster victims the strength they need to steer through the crisis.
“Air transport is the fastest way to deliver such humanitarian assistance and this is the reason we place such a focus on aviation safety,” adds Sajet. “By implementing and following detailed aviation safety standards, we can ensure the speedy and efficient delivery of food and aid, which in turn is critical to saving lives.”
Without its own fleet of aircraft, the United Nations is reliant on using the services of charter companies, either with short-term or long-term contracts. Through a trusted network of contracted operators, such as Maximus Air Cargo in Abu Dhabi, Eastern Sky Jet in Dubai and Royal Wings in Jordan, plus countless others in different parts of the world, WFP has access to a wide variety of aircraft, from the mammoth Antonov AN-124, which can transport bulk volumes of cargo, to the smaller Beechcraft 1900, perfect for flying in all weather conditions to airports with relatively short runways.
“At the beginning of our operations, we would normally select a company that offered the lowest price. However, a number of other factors are now considered, such as the amount of safety training that has been completed by the operator and their dedication to the cause,” states Sajet, who is based in the UAE – one of five countries that host a WFP logistics hub, with the other four located in Ghana, Panama, Malaysia and Italy. “In these strategic hubs we store both food and non food items, and where we distribute those supplies depends on the disaster location. For incidents in South America, for example, we move from Panama, for something in Afghanistan, we move from the UAE.”
Given the danger that can often be associated with WFP flights, the organisation is adamant that only the most experienced pilots will be deployed on missions, with no exceptions. “We aim to mitigate risks by asking for pilots that comply with the highest of international standards, in addition to our own stringent requirements in terms of experience, flying hours and training programmes,” continues Sajet. “For example, they must be familiar with the destinations that are included in their missions and understand the challenges involved, from the risk of midair collisions in Afghanistan to underdeveloped airports in Africa. A detailed briefing is always provided beforehand, on-board checks are made to ensure that the aircraft contains all necessary equipment, and we constantly speak to authorities and NATO about any potential issues.”
In a further bid to lower the risk of accidents, WFP has produced a comprehensive airstrip manual – know as a ‘jungle jeppeson’ – which contains a detailed set of information on various landing strips in the region. “The premise is basically that pilots will learn about different areas and collect information about particular landing strips, which can be passed onto other pilots, so they can rely on the information while visiting that area. We update the details on a regular basis in terms of whether it’s safe to land on a certain airstrip and what obstacles can be expected,” says Sajet. “The greatest challenges that pilots are facing is the availability of runways and suitability of landing. We run into problems with navigation and bird strikes, but on top of this, it’s the aviation culture or safety culture that we are trying to improve.”
WFP’s aviation safety unit is also responsible for holding seminars, conferences, workshops and training sessions around the world, including the Middle East. Since commencing its aviation safety programmes in 2006, for example, over 1000 people have received the training, with a record-breaking 291 employees from WFP, United Nations agencies, civil aviation authorities and NGOs attending in 2009 alone. Sajet also reported a solid turnout for the WFP’s second annual Global Aviation Safety Conference for Humanitarian Air Services, which was hosted in Sharjah last October. The event was organised to provide a common platform for various sectors of the industry to discuss the reduction of aviation-related risks, with over 300 delegates in attendance from airline and airport authorities, logistics operators and brokers, humanitarian organisations and civil aviation authorities in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and United States.
Various topics were discussed at the conference, including the sharing and utilisation of safety information, accident analysis and prevention, hazard identification, and greater collaboration in regional aviation safety. “In addition to being a great networking opportunity, we had a huge number of attendees that exchanged information and safety concerns at the event. We saw regulators sitting next to operators and contracting parties at the same table,” he states with a passionate smile. “It is an amazing synergy that is created when you bring all of them together. We have the same goal and for me it is extremely successful to be able to bring all these different cultures and nationalities and still come up with recommendations agreed by everybody.”
Official statistics have highlighted the positive impact of such initiatives. In the past five years, WFP Aviation’s serious incidents rate has shown a significant downward trend, while accident rate is at an average of 0.45 per 10,000 hours flown. It is little wonder, therefore, that Sajet is eagerly awaiting the next Global Aviation Safety Conference for Humanitarian Air Services, which will be hosted in Mexico this September. “By gathering most, if not all aviation safety officials and organisations under one roof, we can examine a series of new perspectives on the future enhancement of aviation safety standards and procedures,” he concludes. “And for an organisation such as the World Food Programme, these inputs are of great importance because we work, more often than not, in environments that necessitate additional safety requirements.”