The lockdown caused by COVID-19 pandemic could have been a blessing in disguise for the air ambulance industry which was identified as an essential service, and its aggregators received double the evacuation query than the normal days. However, it could not be translated into the business. The stricter regulations and stigma of Covid-19 have cost this industry dearly. As per estimates, since the lockdown, the businesses of this industry has dwindled by 90 per cent.
Dr Sunil Dubey, general manager at Flying Doctors by Medanta, said the company was operating 33-35 evacuation flights a month before the lockdown. It has currently come down to mere 8-10 flights per month. Although, the queries about the services they receive were more than double in number than the usual days. “However, we could not help them,” he said.
Sandeep Kumar, the ALSA air ambulance service owner in Delhi, said his business had gone down by 90 per cent since the lockdown started.
S.K. Singh, Director of Lifeline air ambulance services in Delhi, said that his business had gone down to zero. “The last medical evacuation we operated was on May 20. So technically, we have provided zero services in last 30 days,” he added.
Dr Dubey said that while the air ambulance service was included in the essential services, the permission to start operation was given much later. “We resumed our services only after the first phase of lockdown was over. Till then, we were not given any direction,” he added.
The industry leaders said that the government delayed the permission to resume air ambulance services out of fear that the stranded people in India or abroad could use it to bypass the lockdown. However, they blamed the stricter norms laid out by the aviation authorities after the lockdown, which have caused massive losses to the industry.
“During normal times, we only required a hospital discharge summary and clearance from the aviation regulator to operate the medical flight. Now, we need six more approvals for operating our services,” Dr Dubey claimed.
As per the aggregators, medical flights will be allowed only if a patient has exhausted all local options. The service providers need permission from the district magistrates of both arrival and departure cities after submission of letters from the doctor and hospital giving the patient’s details.
An NOC from the state health department for both origin and destination states is also required. A COVID negative medical certificate for the patient and his/her attendants stating they are not COVID-19 positive. Also, a declaration that they have not come in contact with any COVID-positive person in the last 15 days.
“These norms tied the hands of the patients. Our services are availed when the patient is in critical condition. How would a patient or his/her family collect all the clearances during this period? Not every patient who contacted us had all the clearances,” said Kumar.
Hike in evacuation charges:
Apart from the strict norms, the hike in charges of the air ambulance services also deterred the customers to avail of the air evacuation. The aggregators charge Rs 70,000 to 90,000 per hour, excluding the handling charges at the airports of arrival and departure.
“Since we provide bed-to-bed services, the charges of ground ambulance that picked the patients from the hospital to the airport and again ferried back the patient from the airport to the hospital, has been doubled. Also, the staff of air ambulance requires to stay in PPE gears. All these have added the fair by Rs 50,000, which many finds unaffordable,” Singh informed.
The services of air ambulance are typically availed by people living in tier II cities who are in life-threatening condition and require immediate advanced medical treatment available in metro cities.
The fear of COVID-19:
Dr Dubey said he has observed a reluctance within his staff to perform evacuation duty, especially after one of his pilots tested positive for COVID-19. “He contracted the infection after he took a medical evacuation trip. Our aircraft and the rest of the staff was quarantined for two weeks. The pilot was barred from flying for three months as per norms directed by DGCA,” he informed.
Dr Dubey said that such incidents discourage the staff and the customers alike. “When the news about pilots getting infected with the COVID started coming out, many patients enquired about our pilots’ status. As we could not lie to the patients, many turned down after knowing that one of our pilots has also tested positive,” Dr Dubey added.
Impact of dwindling business on the workforce:
Industry experts said that many companies resorted to lay off their employees or cut their pay packages by half. While many service providers did not admit when asked, the employees in the air ambulance service companies on the condition of anonymity told IANS that the company had shelved workforce as well as cut the pay package of the employees as well.
Meanwhile, Singh acknowledged it on record. “Yes, I have cut the pay package of my staff by 50 per cent. My business is close to zero. I cannot ask them to leave since they will not find job anywhere. The only thing I could have done for our survival is to reduce their current salaries,” he said.
However, Singh also said that the salary cut was done on a condition. “I have promised my employees to repay the amount being deducted from their salaries when the situation improves in coming months,” he explained.
Meanwhile, the experts suggested that no respite from the current condition could be seen this year.