We can all agree that the past months have been a roller-coaster in the assistance and air ambulance industry. The International Assistance Group talks with two air ambulance companies in Latin America. CEO Jessica Faubert from AirLink, based in Mexico. And Chief Commercial Officer, Sergio Abril from Helidosa, based in the Dominican Republic. How did it affect both companies? How did they adapt and how do they see the future? This interview tells the story of AirLink and Helidosa and provides an insight on the effects COVID19 has had in Latin America.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Jessica: “AirLink has a diversified portfolio of services that include air ambulance. We also offer aircraft administration, cargo, executive flights and aircraft maintenance services. All our services were impacted by the pandemic in some way. We saw an increase in aircraft maintenance services and many quotes for cargo flights for the transport of medical and emergency supplies. However, there was a sharp decrease in all flight requests for about 2-3 weeks. Then, as the pandemic spread, the need for transporting COVID patients has become considerable and increased over time until now.”
Sergio: “We experienced a reduction in flight requests from our frequent clients. I believe this is something that has been felt by the entire Travel Health Insurance industry. At HELIDOSA we are lucky that we have diversified our clientele: we are also a provider to other organizations that don’t depend on tourism, such as the United Nations. We also actively participated in relief efforts in the Dominican Republic in this bizarre “pandemic months”.”
Did you have to adapt your business, and how did you do that?
Jessica: “Over the last several months, we have made considerable adaptations to our business on both the revenue and cost sides in planning for the definite short-term, but potentially long-term, effects of the pandemic in our industry and region. Our first efforts were, of course, to offer the transport of COVID-19 patients by air ambulance. We expanded our air ambulance service to include helicopter transports within the two largest cities in Mexico.”
Sergio: “In many aspects, we had to adapt. Our main focus has been the safety and wellbeing of our team members and patients we transport. Since March everyone that can possibly work from home has been equipped and enabled to do so. For our Flight Crew and Medical Crew, we have access to quick testing in our hangars, they are tested before and after every mission. Additionally, we are in the process of updating our protocols on transporting patients with an infectious disease such as COVID19. We should be able to transport these kinds of patients soon.”
What effects did the pandemic have on Mexico/Dominican Republic?
Jessica: “The effects of the pandemic have hit Mexico hard. The historic challenges we face as a country have been sharply accentuated during the pandemic. Most Mexicans live hand-to-mouth. They must choose between earning a day’s wages to buy food or face the risk of infection, making it economically unfeasible to completely quarantine for most households and exceedingly difficult for the government to fully enforce strict lockdowns.”
Sergio: “COVID19 seems to be a magnifier of already existing, structural problems in LATAM. The Dominican Republic is not an exception to that. Also, tourism is one of the three main sources of income for the Dominican Republic. The short- and long-term effects have also hit the Dominican Republic hard. With all measures taken by the government, we are hopefully going in the right direction of flattening the curve on the Island. It is probably still too early to confirm that.”
Does the pandemic affect LATAM Air Ambulance industry differently from what we´ve seen in Europe?
Jessica: “The challenges the pandemic has posed in Mexico are like those faced in most LATAM countries. Economies are fragile and governments are struggling to handle the response to the virus to minimize infections but keep their economy moving. Also, note that Latin America is much larger than Europe with half as many countries. There is also a significant population of 44 million living in dozens of islands in the Caribbean across a large geographical area. Flights between countries in LATAM or across the Americas are on average several hours longer than those within Europe. In addition, there are far fewer professional air ambulance providers. These two regional phenomena continue to provide an interesting market and opportunity for the best-positioned AA providers.”
Sergio: “I believe we cannot talk about the LATAM AA industry without taking into account the broader situation in Latin America. In many countries in LATAM, the number of COVID infected people is still terribly high. It is important to take into account that the vast majority of travelers in LATAM are tourism based. In order to have air ambulance flights, tourism needs to come back first. Due to already existing social, economic and political challenges, many countries in LATAM will most likely experience problems with the peaking virus for a longer period of time.”
How do AirLink and Helidosa see the future of the air ambulance industry on the short and long term?
Jessica: “LATAM has many small informal air ambulance providers that will be whipped out before the pandemic is over. There will likely be consolidation through mergers and acquisitions as poorly performing companies with decent assets in aircraft will be absorbed by stronger financially positioned companies. There will probably be stronger collaboration among the friendly competition that will most likely evolve into formal alliances and shared resources.”
Sergio: “In the short-term operators will need to struggle through this by diversifying clients, enabling collaboration, reducing cost, being cash flow efficient, etc. We are faced with a world changing event that will set a new normal: new travel patterns and new ways of working. Transporting patients with infectious diseases will most likely become more common. I also believe that we will see a reduction in Air Ambulance operators. Some will be acquired and others might close their doors.”
What lessons have you learned from the situation and will there be lasting changes as a result?
Jessica: “The lessons we have learned during this situation are probably universal and relatable to anyone in the industry. Acting quickly to capture efficiencies in processes, procedures, administration and/or operations within the first few weeks of the pandemic was critical. An openness to service diversification without losing a razor focus on our company strengths and effective results was transformational.”
Sergio: “From an industry point of view, we have found the opportunity to come closer to our clients and partners while navigating these new and challenging times. We have been working closer together to provide extraordinary solutions to difficult logistical and clinical needs of our patients.”
Do you have any insights or advice to share with other IAG partners?
Jessica: “I cannot presume to offer eye-opening advice to our sophisticated IAG colleagues that they have not already learned themselves. I am certain we have all adapted very quickly to the new reality. We are not the only ones to have stepped out of our comfort zone to push the limits of our capacity to diversify and tighten our strengths. All of us who remain have proven our team grit, enhanced our capabilities, intensified our flexibility and deepened our problem-solving skills to continue to be relevant within our specific markets and in the industry overall.”
Sergio: “Collaborating amongst operators has been incredibly helpful for us. Open channels of communication with our assistance clients and partners to better manage challenging logistics during missions. HELIDOSA and AirLink for example, have had the opportunity to work together in some missions and have mutually benefited from that: together we are stronger by sharing knowledge and resources.”
Helidosa Aviation Group is the largest private aviation company in Central America and the Caribbean, it was founded in 1992 in the Dominican Republic as an executive and tourist helicopter charter company. In 2009 it started to perform air ambulance flights and in 2011 it welcomed its first fixed wing aircraft. Currently it owns and operates 31 aircraft 9 of which are configurable for Air Ambulance with which more than 3000 successful missions have been completed in 90 countries visiting all 5 continents.
For nearly two decades, AirLink Ambulance provides bedside-to-bedside air ambulance transportations and commercial medical escorts all year round, including patients with a confirmed Covid-19 infection. AirLink is dedicated to bringing critically ill or injured patients back home or to a more adequate medical facility and operates mainly in the Americas. In addition to providing air ambulance service for critical patients suffering from almost any kind of medical condition, AirLink Ambulance is proud to be an expert in highly specialized services such as the transport of burn victims. AirLink is accredited by EURAMI.