Airlec’s story on the safe transport of COVID-19 patients

COVID-19 Support

From the hangar to the hospital: Airlec’s story on the safe transport of COVID-19 patients

When people think of healthcare professionals, they imagine doctors and nurses in hospital surroundings, and ambulances with loud sirens. But what if that ambulance happens to fly? Airlec Air Espace has been transporting medical patients for over twenty years with their ambulance services, and COVID-19 is not their first run-in with viral outbreaks. Paul Tiba, Airlec’s Managing Director, explains in more detail…

Experienced medical aviators

“During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, we were the first European Air Operator that helped transport patients,” Paul explains. “Our people had to remain protected from this horribly infectious disease when flying in and out of Africa.”

 

So when COVID-19 started, the company was well-prepared: “We have all the right equipment on board, and we can even transport our patients in isolation units, with negative air pressure,” he elaborates. “The only danger was at the beginning of the crisis, when we helped repatriate; we didn’t know who tested positive and who tested negative. It was a risk, but we haven’t refused a single mission.”

We have all the right equipment on board and we can even transport our patients in isolation units, with negative air pressure.

In the meantime, Airlec has already brought back 35 confirmed COVID-19 patients – and they’re still counting. These flights range from repatriating patients back to their home countries, so they can recuperate in a familiar environment, to transferring patients from one hospital to another, to manage healthcare capacity.

We haven’t refused a single mission.

Being a French company, Airlec has also been active domestically. With the East of France being badly hit, they’ve had a number of flights in and out of the Basel-Mulhouse airport. “We recently had a flight from Strasbourg to Berlin, bringing a patient to a hospital with more capacity. Flights are mostly restricted to two patients at a time,” Paul explains. “Today alone, we had four Coronavirus-related flights – three international and one domestic. These flights requests have also come from a number of authorities – the government, insurances, hospitals…”

The struggle of stricter regulations

Despite these being medical flights, Airlec has also experienced the difficulties of stricter regulations in light of the health crisis: “Our biggest struggle has been obtaining landing permits. Getting these haven’t been simple, and you’d expect a little more leeway for medical flights in this time,” Paul remarks. “We used to take to the skies in as little as three hours, now it can take up to three days to sort out the flight planning. Some countries have been more difficult to fly to than usual, sometimes it’s all up to the diplomatic relations France has with that country.”

 

On top of that, other medical flights still continue as usual: “It’s extremely busy right now. In addition to the COVID-19 flights today, we had a paediatric flight, and a flight for someone with a heart condition,” he continues. “Those days we have five to six teams up in the air every day, and ready to leave at any instance.”

Changing the perception

Paul also talks about the general challenges that air ambulances have: “Not a lot of people know air ambulances exist – there’s so much more to business aviation than just executive flights,” he states. “I hope the perception will change. People need to know that we are an active part of business aviation. These missions are flown with business aircraft.”

Our patients have been very grateful for our existence.

“People who have flown with air ambulances have a very different way of thinking about this,” Paul continues. “These people are in unimaginable distress, and it’s up to us to reassure them. We’ve been compared to guardian angels in the past. Our patients have been very grateful for our existence.”

 

“But we mustn’t forget the real heroes in this story,” Paul concludes. “Our planes help, but the healthcare professionals are the ones facing the virus. We can only support them to the best of our efforts.”