Safety as Standard
Given the time-sensitive nature of medical emergencies and the vast distances that can be involved in transporting patients to emergency services in the United States, the air medical transport industry has seen massive growth in the past thirty years…
Metro Aviation is one such air medical services company and has been at the forefront of the industry since it was set up in 1982 as a helicopter charter, flight training and maintenance operation. Since those early days, it has grown substantially and is now a leading figure in the air medical industry with a keen focus on flight safety.
“There are two primary parts to our business,” says Metro Aviation Director of Finance and Business Development Kenny Morrow. “The first is that we operate helicopters and airplanes for hospitals and ambulance services all over the United States. We have thirty-four customers that we work with – the majority of them are hospitals – and we provide the pilot, the mechanics, we operate the aircraft. We own about one-third of those aircraft; the other two-thirds are owned by our customers, and we usually contract for five to ten years. Some of the programs are one ship operations, and our largest program is ten aircraft, and we work on anything in between.”
In addition to providing air medical transport, Metro Aviation offers the second part of its business: a fitting service for clients to ensure that their helicopters are complete with the required equipment. Kenny explains that this service is of vital importance to customers since buying a helicopter is unlike buying a car.
“When you get a brand new helicopter from a factory, there is no paint, very minimal interior, lighting, things like that. So our customers bring those helicopters to us, and we do the paint, the air conditioning, lighting – all the things that are needed.” The majority of the aircraft that Metro Aviation completes in this way are for air medical transport, and this service is not limited to aircraft for its own customers; this service is also available to other air medical operators.
During the process of negotiating a contract, Kenny feels that Metro Aviation has excellent credentials to convince a potential client to use its services. “We show who our current customers are because we have a really impressive mix of customers. Well-known ambulance companies and the hospitals we operate in are known throughout the United States – possibly worldwide – so there is a lot of prestige that goes along with that.”
Kenny points out that an important aspect of the company is the value it gives to safety. “We talk a lot about our safety and training programs. Our safety is second to none. We have one full-motion simulator here and another that will be installed next month. We have two [FAA FTD Level 7 model-specific helicopter flight simulators]. We have a full training facility.”
It is crucial that the business and the client be united in a vision for the service, especially regarding the roles that each partner plays. “We want to make sure that our philosophies match with each other – that there really is a dedication to safety. If the customer enjoys the traditional model, there really is no other choice than Metro Aviation because we are the only air medical operator that is a one hundred percent traditional.”
Being a traditional operator means that the company is solely responsible for the air transport, and the client retains all control of the medical staff on board. Kenny feels that this model is best suited to offering the highest level of safety and air transport expertise.
“The one thing that really makes Metro Aviation different is that we are the only company that is one hundred percent traditional operator. We don’t provide any healthcare, nor do we bill or collect for our services from health insurance companies. Our contract is strictly with the hospital or ambulance company. We are purely an aviation company.”
“Our primary competitors still have some traditional programs, but they have made it very well known that their intent is to convert those programs into the community-based model. It is just the path that they have chosen to go down. We prefer the traditional side of the business; we like being focused on aviation. Our focus is on running the safest air medical program possible. One really important aspect in this – and I tell our customers this – is that we are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing us.”
The importance of safety cannot be overstated, and Metro Aviation invests heavily in safety training within its operations. The company has been at the forefront of the safety movement in air medical transportation from its inception, and it remains at the cutting edge in this regard.
“We have a complete training department, which is approved by the FAA. It includes all of our training requirements. When we hire someone, we will bring them to our base here, and they will spend about two weeks with us going through our indoctrination training, our ground school training, and then we put them in the flight simulators. We fly them for eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours to give them training but also to evaluate their skill set and their professionalism and communication skills. We can replicate fire, any type of weather, engine failure. We can replicate just about anything that could happen in a real life aircraft.”
However, like any industry, issues remain. Legislative changes in recent years have meant that health insurance is not as clear cut as it may once have been. “The big challenge is reimbursement. Our customers, we need them to be financially stable, so while we don’t bill for healthcare, our customers do. In the past five to ten years, we have become experts in that industry so that we can help our customers to do a better job of collecting for their flights. There have been a lot of changes in the healthcare reimbursement industry. It is becoming more and more difficult to collect those dollars.”
With such a focus on a traditional transportation model and a safety-first outlook, it is no surprise to learn that Metro Aviation differs from other companies in its plans for future development. The company has an almost philanthropic focus for the future and is just as concerned with assisting the industry in general as it is with increasing its own revenue.
“Metro Aviation is not a growth-driven company. We are very conservative, and we are very much a safety-driven company, so our primary focus every day is just to be as safe as we possibly can. Our vision for the future is not only to continue to improve on our own safety practices but also to affect the rest of the industry.”
“When we first started doing full motion simulation, almost ten years ago, it was unheard of. It cost so much money. It has moved the rest of our industry into some type of simulator training. We have seen a decrease in accident rates as a result.”
With the numbers of air medical aircraft increasing dramatically in recent years, it is reassuring that Metro Aviation is primarily concerned with ensuring the safety of those who employ its services. “There may be more accidents in a given year now than there was back in 1980, but there are also now over a thousand air medical helicopters flying today when there was probably less than fifty in 1980. Metro Aviation has been leading that charge.”