CAN keeps flying patients, despite slowdown in bizav

 - May 3, 2010, 5:51 AM

For a charity whose existence depends upon the health of the business aviation industry, the recent downturn could have proven disastrous for Corporate Angel Network (CAN). But the nonprofit group, which provides free transport for cancer patients using empty seats on business aviation flights, managed to continue providing a high level of vital assistance.

The combination of the economic situation and the stigma some attempted to attach to business aviation caused a reduction in the overall number of flight hours, which in turn had a ripple effect on CAN’s members. “The less business aviation flies, the less potential there is to match our needs with business aviation,” said Peter Fleiss, the charity’s executive director. “First we had corporations that closed their flight departments, and we lost the major auto companies, which were flying a lot for us. There were a number of other companies, such as banks, that merged or closed, and all the negative press hurt us at least as much as the economy. We were affected by that but we outperformed the industry in terms of actual flights within that period. Their flights were down more than 22 percent; ours were down a lot less than that.”

Flight Departments Step Up
Despite those losses, the organization transported more than 2,500 patients last year, an increase of more than 300 percent over the number it flew 10 years ago. Since the charity was founded in 1981, it has provided transportation for more than 33,000 cancer patients and their caregivers and currently lists a roster of more than 500 member corporations, including half of the Fortune 100 index companies. The profile of flight providers ranges from companies such as Dayton, Ohio-based IT solutions firm Teradata, which operates a single Citation XLS, to large corporations like Pepsi, whose flight department handles several Gulfstreams and Challengers.

Though some of CAN’s stalwart lift providers ended their flight operations during the recent downturn, 41 new corporations signed on last year. While Fleiss acknowledges that there might be a few corporations that donated their aircraft
in an attempt to counter negative public opinion, he believes that the recent spotlight on CAN’s activities has convinced many more CEOs to sign up their flight departments to help those in need of transportation. “I would hope that a lot more of the people who signed up are signing up for those reasons than for the defensive reasons, but if they sign up and fly for us, I’m happy for whatever their motivation is as long as we can help more cancer patients,” he said.

Since 1985, the New York-based organization has occupied office space at Westchester County Airport. There a staff of five employees, and dozens of volunteers field the nearly 500 flight requests each month from patients and attempt to match them with corporate flights. Patients must first be registered into the system, providing the name of their local physician and the accredited treatment center they will be visiting, as well as the physician they are traveling to see. Three weeks before the requested flight, the CAN staff will contact the doctors to ensure that a patient has an appointment and is capable of flying.

Patients are never guaranteed a flight and therefore must have back-up travel plans. One week before the scheduled appointment, CAN volunteers will attempt to find seats on flights between the cities. Most of the registered corporations provide weekly or biweekly flight schedules to the charity. Once all the flight schedules are entered into CAN’s Computer Technology Associates Flight Operations System, they are sorted with the current patient flight requests.

After the initial processing by the proprietary software, staffers review the unmatched requests to see which companies historically fly the route needed by patients and call them to see if they have an unscheduled flight headed there. Some of CAN’s members prefer this method of contact rather than providing their flight schedules. Volunteers will also cold-call non-member companies with flight departments based in the area to see if they have any appropriate missions scheduled and possibly recruit new corporate members.

When asked how often a successful match is made Fleiss replied, “Not enough. We match about half of the patients that register, so we typically register between 400 and 500 a month and we typically fly between 200 and 250 a month.”

Typical destinations for patients are major treatment centers such as Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Both areas are home to a large number of corporate flight departments.

Once a match is made, CAN volunteers coordinate between the patient and the flight schedulers to make sure both sides are aware of the date and time of the flight.

If the patient needs transportation to or from the airport, CAN in some cases even covers that too, thanks to an agreement with ground-service provider LimoLink, whose owner has donated many rides. The charity also has agreements with limo companies in different metropolitan areas to provide discount transportation.

“Corporate Angel Network does it all,” said Wayne Dodds, director of aviation for Memphis, Tenn.-based International Paper. “If you have an airplane going from A-to-B, all they do is call you and ask you if it’s all right if they put a patient or two on the airplane. It’s one of those deals that makes everybody feel good and yet [you] don’t have to do much about it. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t participate in it.”