In 2009, Afghanistan was embroiled in a brutal war marked by gun battles, suicide bombings and civilian deaths. But what Antoine Pappalardo remembers most about that time and place is what was missing: the country’s women.
“To go around a large city [Kabul] where all women are absent from plain sight is very depressing. You feel that half of humanity is being hidden and suppressed,” says Pappalardo, CEO of the Toronto-based charter airline Trans Capital Air.
So what was an airline boss doing in a war zone halfway around the world? Establishing an operating base for Trans Capital, which was participating in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country. The work involved flying in food, medicine and supplies for troops and civilians, evacuating patients, and transporting UN staff and international dignitaries.
And Pappalardo (BA 1997 VIC) isn’t the kind of CEO who just delegates dangerous fieldwork. “I wouldn’t ask any colleague of mine to work in a troubled country where I wouldn’t be prepared to go myself,” he says. “It’s important to put my skin in the game.” Trans Capital’s first UN aid assignment was 13 years ago in East Timor, as the country struggled for independence against Indonesian occupation. “The place was completely devastated, and people were getting massacred by the military,” recalls Pappalardo. Since then, his company has participated in UN peacekeeping missions in countries such as Liberia, following the resignation of President Charles Taylor and the conclusion of the Second Liberian Civil War; in Nepal, during the disarmament of Maoist rebels and the transition to a democratic system; and in Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake.
The aviation business is in Pappalardo’s blood: in the 1970s, the Montreal native witnessed his father climb the corporate ladder at the Quebec airlines Nordair and Quebecair. After the family moved to Toronto in the mid-1980s, his father ran his own passenger airline, City Express, until 1991. That’s where Pappalardo junior cut his teeth in the business, working 60-hour weeks during summers.
What Pappalardo always found most captivating was his father’s globetrotting for business in the Middle East, Africa and the Americas. “It opened my mind to the possibility of working anywhere,” says Pappalardo, 41.
After graduating with a degree in political science in 1997, Pappalardo decided to combine his interest in global affairs with the family business, and approached his father – who was then involved in aeroleasing – about refocusing on international work. Together, they grew Trans Capital into a company that has approximately 75 employees, including about 30 pilots. Its nine aircraft fly out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport on Toronto Island. While initially an ad hoc charter flight service, Trans Capital now solely serves the UN and continues to operate in Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia and South Sudan.
“This work really puts you in touch with your own humanity,” says Pappalardo. “It increases your resolve to enable peace, reconstruction and social development in these countries.”