Johannesburg-based Medair has purchased two Learjet 55 from Germany, to fulfil an air ambulance role in southern and central Africa. The 55 offers the operator increased space and practicality against the Learjet 35 range, of which it has had previous experience. Ceo Steve Anderson, pictured front cover, explains the need to upgrade: “The 35s are starting to get a bit long in the tooth now and in the air ambulance business reliability is crucial. You also have to remember that the African air ambulance environment is very different to European air ambulance or north American operations where the patient has had a good standard of medical intervention prior to collection. We have to treat every flight as though the patient has just been removed from a road accident.
“American and EU operations are almost always inter-hospital transfers so when you are getting your patient, he has been into hospital, he has had intervention, he's been stabilised, and cleaned up. We tend to have to carry a lot more equipment than the 35s would carry and that just means we need a lot more space, which is good in the 55. In the 35 you had to fold the seats down to get to the baggage area, which wasn't even that large.”
Anderson adds: “We are now doing a lot longer flights with direct turnaround. Often we go to pick up a patient who, on arrival, is found to be so critical that we cannot sleep over and bring him back the next day, so we have to turn around immediately. For that we needed a larger cabin with space for extra crew to stretch out and sleep on the way up and a proper toilet to allow them to keep blood sugar and hydration under control. If you don't have decent toilet facilities your flight crew don't tend to eat and drink properly which dehydrates them and their fatigue levels get out of hand.
“All those points, as well as the ability to at least stand up and stretch in flight was of importance to us and so we decided to try the 55 as a treat bed for a planned switch to the Learjet 60. If we are happy with them from a cabin size and range point of view, we'll switch to Learjet 60s in about two years time.”
Anderson reveals that the 55s are financially viable: “We are familiar with the 35s but with the way the market is going now, the 55s are in reach of the costings required to operate an air ambulance, so we thought we'd go a step up and get a larger aircraft.”
Fast refuelling is another benefit of the latest acquisitions: “With a lot of our flights we have to stop and refuel, and a 35 takes about an hour to an hour and ten minutes to refuel in Africa, whereas you can do this in 10 minutes in the 55. It reduces fatigue and is a faster turnaround for our crews and the patient.”
The company does run charter missions under the Elite Jet banner, in addition to its air ambulance remit, but the Learjet 55s are specifically kitted out for EMS and their function is dedicated to this. Nonetheless Anderson has sought to expand the charter arm of the business, and cites the recruitment of Greg Ermes in Elite Jet's marketing department as a crucial decision: “We have basically decided to see what we could do with charter in the last two years. And for that reason we hired Greg, who is not an aviation man at all but he's a salesman with real experience in the cellphone market.
“Funnily enough this has been extremely successful for us. Normally you tend to take marketing guys out of your industry, and they seem to go around in circles with the same old people they always talk to. Bringing in a fresh approach made a huge change to our charter business. We've seen a 50 per cent year on year growth and the last 12 months really have been successful. We weren't growing off a large base because we are primarily seen as an air ambulance company, but it just shows that for somebody with a fresh idea and a fresh approach, there is business out there.
Elite Jet is enjoying the year on year growth, but Anderson feels that sooner or later it will plateau: “It will have to level out at a certain point. But I think there are a whole lot of areas we haven't tapped into yet, in terms of availability to the US and the EU market which demands that the aircraft be on your license and not sub-chartered.
Anderson believes that the biggest constraint, certainly in southern Africa, is going to be the age of the aircraft. “Our fleet is ageing quite fast, and there are mainly older aircraft here due to the financing model that is available in this country, so that's what our growth constraint is going to be.
“The Americans and the Europeans don't like to fly aircraft older than 15 or 20 years, preferably younger. Most of our aircraft are already older than that by a long chalk, but we lavish care on them as they are our primary earners, and of course, we fly them ourselves, so we are in front on virtually every flight. We are actively trying to recruit younger aircraft at the moment,” he concludes.
In light of its desire to branch into the European market, the start of October will see Medair open Medair Malta, in what it believes will be the first dedicated air ambulance operation on the island. Anderson says the company plans to provide a high quality service to European operators who cannot get down to west Africa and back inside of flight and duty times: “From our base we can do the return leg and meet the European operator in Malta. We can therefore depart within three hours and the EU operator can meet us anywhere to pick up and continue on to the EU. We will also have a dedicated medical team under the guidance of Andrew Lee, a well respected name in the air ambulance industry. We will be basing one 55 and a Citation SII in Malta, starting with the Learjet 55, with the Citation to follow a few weeks later.”