INTERVIEW: Aid agency chief offers light relief

Philippe Martou is a veteran of the humanitarian aviation sector, with over 30 years of professional experience in the industry. He is currently director of aviation services at the UN World Food Programme.

What sparked your interest in aviation?

I first flew with my family the summer before I turned five. I was invited into the cockpit, and the captain and the first officer allowed me to spend some time with them. At that moment, I felt so important. The thrill of that first flight gave me the ambition and drive to become an aviator. Since very early in my aviation career, I felt a genuine identification with humanity and an interest in helping others. I always wanted to venture into remote territories to rescue and provide food and opportunities to refugees, victims of war, and survivors of natural disasters. The transportation of relief goods to areas in need of humanitarian aid is the "last-mile problem". Humanitarian workers are often able to reach a central transportation hub using commercial means but after that, helicopters or short take-off and landing aircraft are often the only solution to reach these very vulnerable populations. I wanted to be part of and leading this "last mile" solution.

How has your career developed?

My career in aviation started with the Belgian air force. A pivotal point of my life was moving to the humanitarian sector in 2001 and being able to transfer my expertise in rapid response and air operations into one of the world's largest humanitarian organisation addressing hunger: The UN World Food Programme (WFP). I took up my duties as director of the WFP Aviation Service in June, after serving as chief of the preparedness branch within the WFP emergency preparedness and response division, and after years working as WFP co-ordinator and head of the area office in several areas such as Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South and East Darfur.

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UN World Food Programme

What is your role within the World Food Programme?

The UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), managed by the WFP Aviation Service, offers safe, reliable, cost-efficient and effective passenger and light cargo transport for the wider humanitarian community to and from areas of crisis and intervention. I lead a team of 600 multinational staff based in different countries and offering a unique range of skills. We provide air access to locations in hostile, remote and challenging environments, transporting both humanitarian passengers and cargo for the entire humanitarian and development community where safe and adequate commercial air transport alternatives are not available. We are on the front line of some of the world's direst crises, including Yemen and the Ebola response in the DRC. We ensure operational presence in 16 countries through a network of over 300 destinations among the hardest to reach and most isolated locations in the world, using a fleet of more than 60 aircraft, with an additional 35 aircraft on standby to deploy in the shortest time possible. The humanitarian community relies on us.

What role does aviation play within the WFP and how vital is it to the communities it serves?

Humanitarian workers face a race against time to safely reach affected communities threatened by violence, hunger and disease. Most humanitarian needs occur in conflict settings hindered by insecurity and in isolated areas with access constraints and damaged or extremely poor infrastructure. UNHAS is often the only option humanitarian workers have to reach these very vulnerable populations.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

For the past 15 years, UNHAS has been the air service of choice for UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, donors, and other bodies responding to humanitarian and development needs across the globe. Knowing that UNHAS plays a key role in allowing so many agencies to achieve their humanitarian goals, I feel a deep sense of gratification having this unique opportunity to lead the WFP Aviation family.

What are the challenges?

Our working environment is extremely complex. There are many challenges and risks associated with operating in mostly hostile locations with exposure to extreme insecurity and very poor infrastructures. Where we work, aviation safety and security concerns are quite high and over the years, we have developed and refined processes and systems to sharpen our capabilities and indeed we are continuously aiming to be more effective and efficient.

Which countries pose the greatest challenge?

Each country poses a significant level of challenge; otherwise, we wouldn't be there. We strive to provide the best possible air services, taking into consideration each country's specific context and identity. Our awareness of different approaches to a situation helps us to make better and informed decisions.

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