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Toronto's SkyMan from India

SkyLink, which is synonymous with international relief operations, belongs to Toronto-based Surjit Babra, writes Gurmukh Singh in Canada Diary.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2005 10:32 IST

The history-making plane that landed in Toronto last year carrying about 150 birs (copies) of the holy Guru Granth from India belonged to SkyLink.

Today, the (odd) plane seen on CNN downloading relief supplies in Iraq belongs to SkyLink.

Whether it is the deadly tsunami or an earthquake, you will invariably see SkyLink planes downloading relief supplies, men and material in the world's troubled spots or war zones.

Indeed, SkyLink is synonymous with international relief operations. And this SkyLink airline belongs to a Toronto-based Indian immigrant -- Surjit Babra. "Not a usual airline, SkyLink is an air charter and leasing service provider which is hired by UN agencies and governments to ferry medicine, men and material to troubled parts of the world. We are one of the handful airlines which are hired by governments and UN agencies for relief operations,'' Babra had once told this correspondent in his downtown Toronto office.

This Indian-owned airline has just been given with two prestigious awards - the Mother Teresa Award for international humanitarian work and the Counterpart Humanitarian Award. While Babra received the first award in Los Angeles, his CEO Walter Arbib received the second award in New York.

As well as recipient of the Business Person of the Year Award in 1996 from the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, Babra was also given the Sikh Sewa Award in 1998 for his "leadership excellence and commitment.''

How did this Indian make a name for himself in this unusual field?

As he had told this correspondent then, "Way back in 1972, I started work as a travel consultant in London, and then I started a retail travel agency solely to promote India.''

As he learnt the ropes of his trade, Babra saw a huge potential in airline ticket consolidation and GSA representation in the North American market.

"So in 1979 I left London and moved to Toronto to set up my small travel office. It was then that I started this whole exercise.''

And in 1988, he joined hands with a former Israeli travel agent, Walter Arbib, to float SkyLink. Today while Babra is the president, Arbib is the CEO of the group.
After their initial success in Toronto, Babra built a huge presence in the North American market by setting up offices in Los Angeles, Washington DC., Chicago, Miami, Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver.

From being a five-member, $5m company in 1988, SkyLink is today a multi-million group, employing hundreds of staff around the world. SkyLink Aviation, SkyLink Travel, SkyLink Express, SkyLink Holidays and Dollar Rent -A-Car are the arms of this conglomerate. The group has also expanded into retail travel by acquiring the master rights for Global Travel Network and ventured into Internet Travel Technology.

Among the major international organizations to which Skylink provides aircraft and logistical support are the UN, the World Food Programme, USAID, IOM and many other government agencies, including the Canadian armed forces.

How does SkyLink operate?

As Babra had explained, "We are a standby airline which has copters and planes on lease from various companies. We bid for UN and governmental contracts. So when we are sounded about any operation, we get going. We get our planes ready and get our systems activated and fly off with relief supplies or armed personnel. We are known in the world for rapid deployment of aircraft during emergency and aid missions.''

Because of the need for rapid delivery of small packages thanks to the Internet explosion, Babra's group has set up SkyLink Express. SkyLink Express has own aircraft to deliver packages for major courier companies.

In May 2001, SkyLink added yet feather to its cap when it acquired interests in Tourcan Vacations -- which is a well-established Canadian Tour Operator - to set up SkyLink Hollidays to cater to premier and discretionary travelers.

Thanks to this hard-working Indian, SkyLink has grown into a 300-million-plus group today. So much so that the SkyLink profile is today part of school textbooks in Ontario province. "That's was one of the most satifying moments of my life. Also when our plane carrying the holy birs (copies) of the Guru Granth Sahib had landed in Canada,'' Babra had told this correspondent.

And this generous-minded Sikh has never hesitated in paying a part of his earnings to charities. He supports Sick Kids Hospital, and in June 2003 he presented a check for $100,000 to fund de-mining operations in Mozambique.
For a man, who was inspired by Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, there have been many scary moments in his business. "During the Balkan crisis, our copters came under fire, and they suffered more than 400 holes during that operation in 1994.''

But the SkyLink man has always remained undeterred. He indeed is the SkyMan of SkyLink.

First Published: Oct 01, 2005 18:40 IST