From an operational standpoint, how much has your business model had to change to adapt to the new risks posed by Covid-19?
Lauren Dulin: Almost overnight, our assistance company flights declined as government travel advisories took effect and travellers returned home. We continued to fly missions for assistance company clients, hospitals and private pay clients with Covid-19 patients using our transport isolation pods and crews equipped with suitable PPE. We had equipped both our Pennsylvania and Florida bases with transport pods and were able to quickly pivot and respond to client requests.
Have you invested in new equipment/training protocols for crews? Training and certification of medical crew and pilots is an ongoing process; how have you managed this during the pandemic?
Lauren Dulin: We started using the SaniSwiss disinfectant fogging system on our aircraft after every mission almost eight years ago, so we did have to make sure that we had enough disinfectant solution and PPE for both bases as the pandemic hit. We also ordered a second isolation pod to use at our AeroNational base in Pennsylvania. We held additional refresher courses for our medical staff for patient loading and unloading with the isolation pods on our Lear 35s, Lear 55 and Citation aircraft. Our pilots were scheduled for their simulator training and, thankfully, these dates did not have to be delayed.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a great deal of pressure on providers that were not prepared to handle potentially infectious patients, drastically lowering their business volume and income. Do you think that this pandemic will change the air medical marketplace as some providers will simply be unable to continue operations, having not been able to carry patients for several months?
Lauren Dulin: I think most air ambulance companies have the capability to transport some level of infectious disease patients (excluding hemorrhagic fever cases like Ebola and Marburg). The profound and prolonged effect of a 95-per-cent decrease in global air travel makes it inevitable that some providers will succumb to the resulting financial pressures. We are a segment of the industry that is very capital-intensive and almost all of our expenditures are pay-as-we-go. Some of these factors might affect those providers that recently also have made the choice to increase capital expenditures.
As countries gradually start to open their borders again, are you predicting an increase in travel insurance business?
Mike Vallee: We are already seeing an increase in domestic travel in the US and Canada. If I had to bet, I would say that the North American travel trends that have developed over the last 50 years won’t disappear. People have become accustomed to a winter getaway and a recent survey by Travel Leisure Group indicated that 82 per cent of Americans consider that travel is ‘just on pause’ as opposed to ‘changed forever’. That being said, I believe that the impact of Covid-19 will continue to be felt and will affect the way people travel in the future. If anything, it will reinforce in people’s minds the idea that travel insurance is a necessary requirement for any travel.
The international fixed-wing air ambulance market has been through a lot of challenges over the years and has weathered storms including the drop in traveller numbers after 9/11. How do you think the industry will recover from the effects of Covid-19? Are there any lessons from the past that can be applied to the current situation?
Lauren Dulin: Much of the recovery will be tied to the development of a vaccine for Covid-19. Before that occurs, any meaningful recovery will depend on how the airlines, cruise companies and insurers respond to the consumer concerns over safe travel. The industry will recover because it has to recover: according to a 2017 ICAO report, travel and tourism's total (including directly, indirectly and induced impacts) contribution to global GDP was $8.3 trillion, equivalent to 10.4 per cent. I don’t think the world can afford to let that kind of an economic driver sit idle for too long. When it comes to applying lessons learned from past events like 9/11 to this current situation, many people are focusing on the differences as opposed to the commonalities; I think the only way we can get past this is if we concentrate on the idea that although 9/11, SARS, the Icelandic volcanic eruption and Covid-19 are all very different in form and impact, they are similar inasmuch as they caused a shutdown in air travel and resulted in a rapid shift in thinking and an eventual recovery leading to growth.
Speaking in more general terms, how do you think the air ambulance business has developed and improved in the last 20 years?
Mike Vallee: The air ambulance industry is one that continues to improve as time goes on. There is a reciprocal relationship between provider and client that lends itself to continuous improvement: As the leaders in the air ambulance industry innovate and improve in order to build market share, the insurers and assistance companies then raise the bar for minimum requirements in the industry. This, along with the trend towards requiring that providers be accredited by bodies like EURAMI, ensure that there are fewer opportunities for less stringent operators to tarnish the image of the industry.
We’ve all had to get used to communicating and working remotely, but what are you most looking forward to when the world goes to back normal?
Mike Vallee: Much of my adult life has been spent anticipating my next trip – essentially the act of getting from point A to point B and the promise of the people met along the way. The unforeseen pause brought on by the pandemic has taught me that I am most looking forward to simply sitting down at my computer to figure out how to get to wherever point B is next.