Phoenix Air Vice President and COO Dent Thompson briefed Cagle on the company’s recent work as the U.S. government’s contractor of choice for transporting infected patients.
“As a result of that, as of last Friday, Phoenix Air now has a contract with the U.S. Department of State and we’re the airlift now for the U.S. government for this type of event,” Thompson said. “So all subsequent movements will not be for charities like Samaritan’s Purse that we did these first two with. They will only be done for the United States government.
“Now a lot of other governments have come to us. Today alone I’ve dealt with the Greeks, the French and the Spanish. Over the week we’ve dealt with the Chinese, all kind of governments that want in on the ability to move their people. We’re referring them all to the state department.”
Under the contract, Thompson explained, the state department is handling all international agreements with foreign governments, who will fund the missions. The state department then passes the mission on to Phoenix Air.
The first client under this new contract was the Canadian government.
“The first cat out of the bag was about 10 o’clock this morning. We confirmed a trip for the Canadian government, the Canadian Public Health Service, and we have a jet leaving at 4 o’clock today headed over to Sierra Leone to pick up three people that ... they do not have Ebola, but they’ve been working in the area and the Canadian government wants them out of there,” Thompson said.
Saying the civil aviation authorities have shut down in the area where Ebola has become an epidemic, Thompson believed Phoenix Air was the “only guys in town right now” to move patients from Sierra Leone and Liberia to treatment centers in other countries. He cited the company’s experience of flying previous missions into Africa for the state department as one reason why Phoenix Air is able to get in and out.
“We got an assignment a day and a half ago to go into Sierra Leone and get a doctor who has full-blown Ebola and take him to Germany, and I’m happy to say we delivered him into Hamburg, Germany, this morning and it went perfectly and that jet’s on its way home,” Thompson said. “[We] already have another call for a possible trip leaving tomorrow, so this has become a roller coaster that’s not stopping and probably won’t stop for a year.”
Also sitting in on the briefing were State Sen. Bruce Thompson and State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, who both represent Bartow County in the Georgia Legislature. Thompson assured both men that the company would not do anything to harm the county in the course of its air ambulance services.
Remarking on Phoenix Air’s future business plans, Thompson said unmanned aerial vehicles also called drones, are going to be a major focus. A new division, called Phoenix Air Unmanned, now exists for when the Federal Aviation Administration allows commercial drones to operate in the U.S. Potential uses for the drones, Thompson said, could include contracting out to movies, power companies for line inspections or agricultural uses.
“What we want to do is create a commercial operating company where we will go to Georgia Power and contract, and we’ll bring in our subcontractors who will do work. I had a real eye-opening meeting — we had a real eye-opening meeting — earlier this week with some guys that are in the power line patrol business,” Thompson said. “... Last year the power company industry ... they had 13 fatalities due to crashes and they had another, I think he said nine or 10 fatalities from climbers, where they’ll see something and the plane or chopper can’t get tight enough to really tell what it is and they’ll send a guy climbing up and he’ll either fall or be electrocuted or whatever. So the power industry is most interested in the safety aspect of it.”
At the moment Phoenix Air has approximately 35 to 37 commercial aircraft and 230 to 250 employees, depending on their operations. Cagle was complimentary of the company’s growth over the years.
“It really is exciting, one, to think about the number of employees that you’ve grown to,” he said. “Because I’ve been back since, but when I first came here, I guess it was nine years ago, you were relatively small. ... It’s a long way in a pretty short period of time.”
Following the first flight with the Ebola patients attention has only increased on the company, Thompson said, and Phoenix Air is not seeking the publicity that has come along.
“I’ve had TIME Magazine, ‘Can you guys be on the cover?’ No. National Geographic, NatGeo channel, ‘We want a one hour special on it.’ No, thank you. Things we can control we are not participating in. Simply because Phoenix Air doesn’t need publicity to sell stock, to sell our services to the world because we don’t work for the public. We work for the government, principally,” he said.
After the briefing, Thompson said Phoenix Air would not expand its fleet in response to increased demand for air ambulance services. The Ebola outbreak will not last long enough to justify it, he believed, and other companies or countries will someday have the same capabilities Phoenix Air.
“You’ve got to be realistic. This Ebola thing is the hot topic right now and this’ll all be over within six, nine or 12 months. They will get a handle on this. The various governments around the world are pouring people and money in to get a handle on this, and this’ll all die down and then things here will go right back to where they were a month ago, which is busy but not nonstop busy,” he said. “It’ll die down. So spooling up beyond our current capacity doesn’t really achieve anything. We’d end up with too much stuff when this dies down.”
Before he left after the roughly hourlong talk, Cagle thanked Phoenix Air for its work and making its home in Georgia.
“But listen, we’re proud of you guys,” Cagle said. “Thank you, one, for your investment in Georgia, but two, continuing to grow and do great works for so many people. You know it makes us very, very proud to have a world mission like we just witnessed and know the company transporting the two patients were from right here.”