Hospitals often call on Carolinas HealthCare System’s air ambulance fleet

aalexander@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

With five planes and three helicopters, Carolinas HealthCare System owns a more extensive fleet of aircraft than most hospital systems.

The hospital chain owns two Cessna jets, two Beechcraft King Air turboprops and a twin-engine piston plane known as a Beechcraft Baron.

In 2009, it replaced older air ambulance helicopters with three Eurocopter 135 helicopters now worth about $4 million each.

Carolinas HealthCare’s air ambulance program, known as MedCenter Air, is the only “hospital-based, accredited fixed-wing air ambulance service” in the Carolinas, system officials say.

A nonprofit public hospital system with about $7 billion in annual revenue, CHS runs more than 30 hospitals in the Carolinas.

Some large hospital systems own few, if any, aircraft.

Novant Health, which runs the three Presbyterian hospitals in Mecklenburg County along with others in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia, owns just one plane – a twin-engine turboprop known as a Beechcraft B300. Novant has about $3.6 billion in annual revenue.

Forty people are employed to operate and maintain the CHS aircraft, which are kept at a spacious hangar at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The hospital system contracts with two companies – Landmark Aviation and Air Methods Corp. – to employ pilots and operate the planes and helicopters.

The aircraft are used mostly for transporting patients, often people suffering heart attacks, strokes and other life-threatening conditions. They’re also used to retrieve organs needed for transplant operations.

More than 50 other organizations – including hospitals and insurance companies – also contract with the system’s air ambulance service for flights. Occasionally, the planes are also used by system executives for business and personal travel. From 2008 to 2012, executives boarded about 9 percent of flights on the system’s planes.

Carolinas HealthCare said that it spent about $12 million on its aircraft last year, and generated about $12.6 million in revenue from them. The system says MedCenter Air serves a “vital role” in transporting patients who are critically ill and injured.

In a July letter posted on Carolinas HealthCare’s social media sites, system CEO Michael Tarwater alerted employees that the Observer was writing a story about the use of CHS planes for corporate transportation. He said MedCenter’s Air’s “primary mission is to transport sick or injured patients.”

“I am extremely proud of this team and the lives they save,” Tarwater wrote. “Patients come first, always, and patient transportation is a priority over any other use of the aircraft.”

Alexander: 704-358-5060

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