Sep 13, 2018

Rescued Abroad: Behind the Scenes in an Air Ambulance

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For most travelers who vacation abroad, you come home with some great photos, a broader view of the world, and a token t-shirt or souvenir. But when the unexpected medical emergency arises, you could end up flying home on an air ambulance—a potentially life-changing and costly experience.

Our global assistance team handles more than 50,000 calls each year from travelers in need. While medical emergencies are less common, in 2016 alone we brought home more than 500 customers on medical transports either by commercial flight with a nurse or in an air ambulance.  The types of injuries we commonly see are fractures resulting from an accidental fall or motor vehicle accident, heart attacks, strokes and other serious illnesses.

Some ill and injured travelers can return home on commercial flights with a nurse escort, even if they’re on a stretcher. But for those who are seriously ill, on a ventilator or have an unstable condition, we fly them home on their own private jet. A medical evacuation by air ambulance can cost as much as $100,000 to $200,000 depending on the location.1 That’s why travel protection is so valuable for trips abroad, protecting travelers’ health and financial security.

A Fully Equipped Flying ICU

We recently met one of the crews of Skyservice Air Ambulance International, a Canadian company we contract with to serve our customers. As the largest owner and operator of dedicated air ambulances in North America, Skyservice has flown to 180 countries and transported 27,000 patients. A Montreal-based medical transport team visited us at the airport near our headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, for a personal tour of their aircraft. Some of our assistance case managers got an up-close look at medical evacuation procedures.

A mid-sized business jet, this Bombardier Learjet 45XR has been converted into a flying Intensive Care Unit (ICU). It’s equipped with up to two stretchers, cardiac monitors, a defibrillator, oxygen and ventilators to care for critically ill patients and even resuscitate them if necessary. The cabin is fully equipped with six seats to accommodate the medical staff and family members traveling with the patient, limited luggage, and a lavatory in the back. With all that equipment, it’s a tight fit for a long flight.

Watch a video tour of the air ambulance.

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Allianz - ICU Nurse on airplane

Expert Care for Medical Evacuations

Along with two pilots in the cockpit, the on-board medical staff includes a physician, an ICU registered nurse and/or a paramedic, and a respiratory therapist when necessary. The in-flight team is supported by an experienced staff of physicians and medical specialists on the ground associated with the University of Virginia. Using a satellite phone, the in-flight crew can consult and stay in constant communication with the University physicians and our assistance specialists, as well as learn about changes to the patient’s condition while enroute to an evacuation.

Our customers who’ve needed medical transport are commonly in the Caribbean or Europe, but the airborne ICU crew can fly almost anywhere in the world—as far as Asia and Australia—requiring a stop to refuel every four and a half hours. If the patient becomes unstable during flight, the crew finds the nearest airport to land where they can receive care at a qualified hospital.

The pilot said they typically fly around 44,000 feet altitude, higher than commercial aircraft, to avoid weather and minimize turbulence. This makes the ride especially more smooth and comfortable for patients.  Annie-Claude, the Montreal-based ICU nurse we met, has been doing this for three years. The longest patient transport she assisted with was from Guadalupe to the Philippines.  She says our customers are always relieved and grateful to see her because it means they’re coming home safely.

We thanked the crew for the tour and the expert care they provide our customers traveling abroad. Then we watched them take off and disappear on the horizon, prepared for the next call that will send them on a rescue mission anywhere on earth.

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Terms, conditions and exclusions apply.
Insurance benefits underwritten by BCS Insurance Company or Jefferson Insurance Company, depending on your state of residence.  Plan(s) only available to U.S. residents and may not be available in all jurisdictions. Allianz Global Assistance and Allianz Travel Insurance are brands of AGA Service Company.  AGA Service Company is the licensed producer and administrator of these plans and an affiliate of Jefferson Insurance Company. The insured shall not receive any special benefit or advantage due to the affiliation between AGA Service Company and Jefferson Insurance Company. Non-insurance benefits/products are provided and serviced by AGA Service Company. Consumer may be responsible for charges incurred from outside vendors for assistance or concierge services. Contact AGA Service Company at 800-284-8300 or 9950 Mayland Drive, Richmond, VA 23233 or


1. “Five myths about medical evacuations,” USA Today.

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