Sabri Shadi: Born to lead

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Throughout the crippling times of United Nations sanctions, US trade embargoes and the years since, Sabri Saad Abdallah Shadi has been the public face and driving force behind Libya's determined strides towards reconnecting with the international aviation community and forging a strong air transport sector at home.

His tireless work within Libya and on the executive committees of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) and the Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO) won him, in April 2008, the African Aviation Award in recognition for his outstanding services to the continent's aviation development.

Sabri Shadi has been closely involved with Libyan aviation since obtaining his commercial pilot's licence from the Oxford Air Training School in 1979. In the same year, he started flying Boeing 727-200s and Fokker F28s for the national carrier Libyan Arab Airlines, and his vision and determination soon brought him recognition at the highest level. This led in 1991 to his appointment as chairman of the Light Transport Company, later Air Jamahiriya.

After the UN sanctions were lifted in February 1999, Sabri Shadi was tasked with renewing the crippled national carrier and, as its chairman, began the difficult process of bringing Libyan Arab Airlines out of its enforced isolation.

Just how onerous this assignment was can be measured by the conditions prevailing at that time. "We had no international flights, our offices were forced to close down everywhere," Sabri Shadi recalls. "We had no access to spare parts, no insurance company was allowed to insure Libyan aircraft, we could train neither pilots nor engineers. We were prohibited from making any investment.

"As I recall, this was the first time the United Nations had placed sanctions on an airline. Libyan Arab Airlines was specifically named in the sanction document. In 1991, the year before the imposition of UN sanctions, we had 35 passenger aircraft, but this had shrunk to just one operational Fokker F28 and one Boeing 727 by 1999. There were many days when we did not have a single aircraft in the air. We had 450 pilots in the airline at that time, they were not doing anything. It was also not easy for Libyan pilots and other skilled workers to find jobs abroad. No one wanted Libyan nationals.

"The damage done was so great, it was really difficult to recover. Although the UN sanctions had been lifted, the US embargo carried on for another four years. I tried so hard to find solutions for the fleet and although we signed a letter of intent with Airbus in late 1999, we were unable to buy new aircraft until early 2006."

Sabri Shadi admits there was a strong possibility that Libyan Arab Airlines would not survive, a prospect that hastened the establishment of a new government-owned airline, Afriqiyah Airways, which was initially to link Libya to West Africa, as well as to Europe. The government turned to Sabri Shadi to lead the new carrier as its chairman. As it turned out, both airlines developed in parallel along similar networks, but with little overlap. But says Sabri Shadi: "From day one of the operation of Afriqiyah Airways [in 2001], I knew that the time would come when we would have one airline. That time is now."

Another key moment for Sabri Shadi came in 2007, when he was also appointed chairman of the Libyan African Aviation Holding Company (LAAHC), which comprises four government agencies and was set up to serve as an umbrella organisation to oversee the co-ordinated development of the country's air transport sector. His two-pronged strategic mission, as chairman of both Afriqiyah Airways and LAAHC, is to prepare Afriqiyah and the restructured Libyan Airlines for a merger, which he expects to be completed in 2009, provided he can persuade his paymasters of the benefits of having one strong national airline, and to attract private investment into the aviation sector.

"The ultimate goal is to have the private sector fully control such companies. We are working on this, trying to improve their financial position and getting them to a state where they become attractive targets for private investors. At the moment they are not. The airlines will be the last to be taken out of government control."

Sabri Shadi has no illusions about the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead. But rather than having to mount a rearguard action as in the past, the steely resolve of this quietly-spoken man can now propel his country's air transport sector forward.