Interview: Zakaria Bouhlel – Saving lives from Mission Control
ITIJ spoke with Zakaria Bouhlel, Business Development Director at Air Rescue Group, about his passion for the industry, his new role, and what’s next for the business
What’s your background in the air rescue/air medical industry and what attracted you to it?
Fifteen years ago, I began my career by addressing medical emergencies and translating expert advice into logistical solutions. For me it is amazing to see how the air rescue field has rapidly expanded, providing quick healthcare access between countries, and saving lives. Having a passion for saving lives, patient safety and crisis management has honed my agility and flexibility, allowing me to establish industry-specific capabilities in multiple countries and oversee complex medical transport missions while maintaining strong client relationships.
Air Rescue Group is based in Dubai but has reach across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. How has the location of your head office helped with growing your business?
Our 24/7 Mission Control Centre in Dubai handles all air ambulance fleet deliveries so that our clients and partners have a direct contact with one accountable delivery centre. It increases the level of knowledge of the operations team and provides a wider expertise. Having our HQ in Dubai presents several further advantages: favourable business climate, access to top talent, and incentives for new businesses.
Your title has recently changed to Business Development Director – how has this changed your day-to-day working practices? What does a typical workday look like for you?
My new role means I will now focus more on our commercial agenda and expansion globally, looking to enrol new clients and retain existing clients and partners through balancing excellent service delivery and medical outcomes with the client's interests and expectations. My first step is to engage further with clients, partners, and colleagues, ensuring our delivery meets their expectations, that they get the best commercial offer addressing the client and patient needs, with a goal to position Air Rescue Group as the go-to option for any air ambulance requirements in the regions we operate – and beyond.
What has been your biggest challenge and your most rewarding moment since starting in the industry?
An example might help illustrate the best answer to this question! Recently, we transported a middle-aged patient with acute respiratory distress syndrome from Baghdad to Dubai. At a local hospital, the patient was on a ventilator that was not managed adequately. As a result, his condition started deteriorating rapidly just before the flight. Situations like this require precise coordination, quick action, and anticipation – even a brief delay could lead to a deterioration beyond saving. Our rapid response, which led to the best outcome for the patient, was only possible due to the outstanding professionalism of our medical crew and our vast experience and in-depth understanding of the region.
Tell us about your staff of paramedics, doctors, nurses, and air crew. How do you attract and retain the right people for your business?
We are very fortunate to have a medical team with enormous practical experience in all types of emergencies: adult, obstetric and paediatric care. Attracting and retaining a well-qualified and passionate medical crew is essential to ensure high-quality clinical practice. Retrieval and air ambulance work requires a unique type of practitioner – one who enjoys challenging clinical scenarios and excels at solving complex problems. However, because of the high standards set as a requirement for the crew, finding individuals with the correct qualifications often proves to be a challenge. Therefore, building a strong reputation in the industry and providing holistic staff support, including in-flight safety and growth opportunities, can attract and retain crew members. Good working relationships within the team are also crucial, and we take pride in fostering a positive team culture.
Why are accreditations so important to the business and which do you subscribe to?
We value accreditation as it improves quality, compliance and reputation, and also strives for optimal patient care. Our systems comply with all relevant aeromedical regulations, e.g. we are EURAMI certified for the Africa operation and will continue to roll this out to other locations over time. Our commitment to the highest level of service and care builds our reputation with clients and partners.
What does the future look like for Air Rescue Group?
Although we’ve been providing air ambulance services across various regions for more than 25 years, we have only recently embarked on the journey to consolidate under the Air Rescue Group umbrella with combined command-and-control in pursuit of our vision to be the best-in-class provider of aeromedical transportation with unrivalled reach. At the same time, we are looking at expanding into new territories where we believe there is a demand for our services and where our clients require our unique set of capabilities and expertise. It’s an exciting time and we’re in an excellent position to scale the business.