Air Blood: Plane Network Ferries Samples Around U.S.

Allegheny County Airport among 4 airbases used by national lab company Quest Diagnostics

By Noah Moore

Published August 5, 2019

Read Time: 2 mins


As night approaches at Allegheny County Airport, after most of the air traffic has come and gone, the flight crews of Quest Diagnostics are just getting started.

More than 3,700 Quest ground couriers deliver a wide range of medical samples, including vials of blood and bone marrow, from doctors’ offices and Quest outpatient centers to the airport. Crews load the samples on cargo jets for overnight flights to Quest laboratories to be tested.

Quest flies out of 62 cities per night, but Allegheny County is one of only four airbases, which serve as bases of operations; the others are in Atlanta, Kansas City and Dallas.

The clinical laboratory company, founded in 1967, owns an estimated 23 cargo jets. Quest employs its own pilots, flight crews and mechanics to transport samples from more than 2,000 patient locations across the U.S. to one of its 26 labs.

Each day, the planes carry almost 1,400 “bags” – the term used for medical samples –  in soft-sided containers that can maintain one of three temperature ranges: ambient, refrigerated or frozen. The refrigerated containers are equipped with cooler packs and the frozen come with dry ice.

Companies like UPS and FedEx consolidate their deliveries at central hubs, which can add an additional day of delivery time. The samples Quest picks up from doctors’ offices or patient service centers are tested that evening or early the next morning.

That kind of quick turnaround rate requires speedy transport, said Robert Severini, Quest’s executive director of national logistics.

“Since we fly, we never really push the envelope on time or temperature stability,” he said. “This means that the results of your test are provided to you and your doctor in a quicker manner.”

The faster your samples are processed, the more quickly doctors can diagnose you, said Dr. William Pasculle, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s clinical microbiology laboratories.

“The samples we send enable us to provide the results of esoteric tests that we don’t perform locally, often very specialized testing,” he said. “Doctors always say they want their results back yesterday, so, in general, these delivery systems speed up the process.”

Sample drawn at medical centers are sent to be tested across the U.S., then sent back through a web portal to the hospital for the doctors’ and patients’ use. With airplanes, this process can be done quickly and carefully.

“Our main focus from a quality standpoint and from a service standpoint is that we pick up the specimens in a very timely fashion,” said Severini. “We take great care and invest a lot in training, whether it is our ground carriers or our pilots to ensure we are providing high-quality service and doing it the right way every day.”

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