While small airplanes are fine for patients who are healthy enough to get in and out on their own and don't need to travel more than 1,000 miles--the most one could endure in the back of a small, bathroom-less airplane--people who need to travel farther or who are confined to a wheelchair need the help of an airline or a high-performance business plane. Mercy Medical Airlift's Ed Boyer has found that only about 40 percent of patients needing air transportation are able to use general aviation craft.
In some cases, patients are able to use empty seats on business jets. In 1981, pilot Patricia Blum and Avis franchise owner Jay Weinberg, both recovered cancer patients, helped found the Corporate Angel Network. Since then, CAN has arranged more than 11,000 flights and boasts access to some 1,500 aircraft from more than 500 companies. CAN has limited itself to helping cancer patients, however, and because the seats and destination of flights depend on what's available at the time, the organization can fill only about a third of the requests it receives.
While nearly all airlines have charitable programs patients might be able to use--donated frequent flier miles, for example--each has its own requirements and limitations. Eligibility depends on the patient's circumstances, condition, age, location, and destination.
Information about each program can be difficult to find. To help patients sort through the services available, Mercy Medical Airlift operates a 24-hour hotline for those seeking information on various pilot groups, corporate programs, and airline resources. The service also manages a free-ticket program for America West Airlines and a discount-ticket program for Continental. America West's program helps 10 to 15 patients a month, while Continental's Care Force program has a four- or five-month waiting list and has to turn away 60 to 80 families a month. Besides Continental, only a few airlines offer a lower fare for medical travel--US Airways, Alaska, Southwest, and America West among them.