“We are prepared for the next pandemic”
ITIJ spoke to Martin Muehlmeyer, Director of Operations at FAI, about changes to his role and the air ambulance industry as a whole
How has your role changed since you started?
When I joined FAI as Operations Manager 17 years ago, I was still working from a small city office and had to organise and oversee the operations of just three aircraft. FAI has grown steadily over the years and has operated a fleet of more than 20 aircraft in various business areas for over a decade. As a result, my role has also increasingly changed. I took on the role of the Accountable Manager for flight operations, and together with Volker Lemke I have been managing the company for many years. Of course, my tasks and responsibilities have changed radically, after all, the company now has over 220 employees.
I can imagine your role can be quite rewarding sometimes. What do you love most about your job?
Managing complex operational processes in aviation, combined with demanding intensive care patients, has always fascinated me, and that is basically daily business at FAI. If you then find the best solution for an urgent operation in the middle of the night somewhere in no-man’s-land in Africa to bring the patient to the nearest suitable hospital to stabilize his condition, then I’m happy about that – and of course the whole team.
What makes FAI different from other air medical companies?
The experience of complex missions, even over long distances and in difficult areas of the world, operational flexibility when basic conditions change, timely solutions when medical necessity arises. And last but not least, our uncompromising demand for the highest quality in our medical and operational infrastructure.
How has the pandemic influenced the way you work?
At the beginning of the pandemic, the aforementioned requirements were a real challenge, especially in the operational area with all the daily changing restrictions. Many processes that had been tried and tested over the years suddenly stopped working, and new approaches had to be developed and implemented. Today this has basically become the norm, new processes are implemented more promptly, and of course that also counts for my own work.
How has the pandemic influenced air medical transport as a whole?
Of course, the pandemic meant a real ‘crash’ for the air ambulance industry, as the cases typical of mass tourism collapsed by almost 100 per cent. Of course, this could not be compensated for with the comparatively small number of Covid transports. Presumably, some operators who had not specialised in air ambulances left this sector, and a certain amount of market shakeout may have taken place. But in the meantime, the typical inquiries are increasing significantly again and a return to normal seems realistic. However, I doubt whether the investment in long-haul aircraft made by some operators will pay off. In my opinion, this market will hardly grow in the future and is basically already completely occupied.
Did the pandemic change how you view your role?
Basically, no. Of course, the entire aviation industry was hit extremely hard by the pandemic and, as managing director, I was initially more of a crisis manager than an operations manager. But within a very short time we had adapted the company to the new requirements, and we were very active in the area of ambulance flights for Covid-positive patients. It did take longer for things to get back to normal, but my role is now comparable to the pre-pandemic situation.
What does FAI’s future look like? How are you adapting to this new world?
During the pandemic, we were forced to shut down some air ambulances, especially from the Learjet fleet. At the same time, new business areas in the executive charter area were expanded in order to avoid dismissals of pilots and to keep the company financially stable. With the partial return to normal, we are now planning to accelerate the expansion of the ambulance fleet again, but due to the current difficult job market situation, we have to view this as a medium-term project. Unfortunately, the pilots deployed in other areas cannot simply return to the ambulance sector, so we are dependent on new hires. In terms of adapting to the new world, we see an advantage today: we are prepared for the next pandemic.