A STAT Medevac helicopter lands at Allegheny County Airport on April 15. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

As Air Traffic Stalls, Medical Services Keep Flying

Even as commercial air travel has plummeted across the country, medical air operations have remained strong.

With all the focus on COVID-19, what can be overlooked are the essential medical services that require air traffic, such as emergency helicopter transfers, blood transports and organs being shipped for transplant operations.

In Pittsburgh, much of those medical needs are served by Allegheny County Airport, a general aviation facility 10 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

“We are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure just like Pittsburgh International and the larger airports,” said Traci Clark, who oversees operations at AGC for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which operates both facilities.

“Right now, we’re primarily seeing medical traffic. AGC is really the gateway for this type of traffic for the region. Regular, everyday medical services remain critical,” Clark said.

AGC is home to emergency medical helicopter services STAT MedEvac and Air Methods, which operates a regional maintenance base there, as well. Quest Diagnostics, which tests medical samples nationwide, also maintains one of its four air bases at the airport.

A mechanic works on a helicopter at an Air Methods regional maintenance base located at AGC. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Bill McClain, facilities manager for Air Methods at AGC, said his maintenance base relies on the airport to be operational.

“If AGC shut down, we wouldn’t be able to be doing the needed work to support the company,” McClain said. “People don’t realize what Air Methods is all about.”

Daniel Nakles, director of business relations and development for STAT MedEvac at AGC, added that it’s been “business as usual” for the emergency helicopter service and noted the importance of the airport remaining open to support their operations.

“AGC plays a vital part in our ability to operate efficiently as one of the largest operated and dispatched air-medical transport systems in the United States,” Nakles said.

Like all airports, Allegheny County has seen a large decline in traffic as the pandemic has worsened. Business travel has come to a near-halt, and the airport serves many corporate and private jets as an executive gateway.

Total operations at the airport were down nearly 18 percent year-to-date through March compared to last year, about equal to the dip in commercial traffic at Pittsburgh International in the same timeframe.

“Some people have asked why airports are remaining open,” Clark said. “This is a perfect example. People’s lives are dependent on these medical services, and the services are dependent on the airport being operational and safe.”

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