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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 15, 2006

AirMed Hawaii could be ready to fly in days

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

The state has given permission for a second air ambulance provider that could have a jet in the air as early as Tuesday, according to a company official.

AirMed Hawaii is one of four companies that applied for an emergency certificate of need after Hawaii Air Ambulance voluntarily grounded its fleet of four Cessnas after a March 8 crash on Maui that killed three crew members. In applications to the State Health Planning and Development Agency, the companies argued there is a crisis in aeromedical coverage in Hawai'i.

SHPDA Administrator David Sakamoto said yesterday AirMed Hawaii's application was approved Thursday because it was the only company that could have a plane in service "within the next couple of days."

Applications by Premier Jets, ACI Pacific and Big Island Air were not approved, he said. A fifth company, Pacific Medical Assets, did not complete the filing process.

"We are just thrilled and are looking forward to serving the community," said AirMed Hawaii Vice President Sandy Apter.

She said a Hawker 800 jet was due here today to provide interisland patient transport until a twin-propeller Beechcraft King Air C-90 arrives in two weeks.

The Hawker will remain available until a backup King Air arrives two weeks later, she said.

Once the jet's medical setup is inspected by officials from the Department of Health's Emergency Medical Services branch, the aircraft will be approved to begin service.

Apter said she hopes that will be done Tuesday.

Many Neighbor Island medical professionals welcomed news of additional air ambulance service.

"I think all our reactions are a feeling of relief because we've all been very stressed and frustrated with the situation," said Sharlee Dieguez of Med Hawaii Inc., which manages emergency room doctors at Maui Memorial Medical Center.

"It's gratifying that (SHP DA) agreed with us that there was indeed an emergency situation," she said.

She said her group had grown dissatisfied with Hawaii Air Ambulance over the past six or seven years.

She said transport delays have increased and the company has not met promises to buy newer planes or expand its fleet.

AirMed Hawaii, a subsidiary of AirMed International, based in Birmingham, Ala., has hired a crew of six paramedics and nurses and will use Mainland pilots until local flight crews can be trained, Apter said.

The company requested a two-year certificate of need to recoup its investment, which should give it a solid foot in the door to compete head-to-head with Hawaii Air Ambulance, which had long been the only company authorized to provide interisland aeromedical services in Hawai'i, averaging 200 missions a month.

Hawaii Air Ambulance officials declined to comment yesterday on AirMed Hawaii's emergency certificate approval.

Hawaii Air Ambulance is using a leased airplane and one of its Cessna 414As for patient transports.

Its other three Cessnas continue to undergo inspection by a company hired by Hawaii Air Ambulance in a move to restore public and employee confidence in its fleet.

The Federal Aviation Administration also is inspecting company operations after the March 8 crash, the second fatal accident in a little more than two years.

In January 2004, three crew members were killed when a Hawaii Air Ambulance plane crashed on the Big Island, the company's first fatal accident in its 27-year history.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined pilot error was the cause of the Big Island crash.

The NTSB has not issued a final report on the Maui crash, but witness accounts suggest mechanical problems.

FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said yesterday his agency cleared Hawaii Air Ambulance's Cessna for use because "we haven't found anything from a safety standpoint that would cause us to ground this particular aircraft."

Hawaii Air Ambulance spokesman Keith DeMello said that based on an FAA recommendation, flights are using two pilots at night, instead of one, to better track conditions.

Both fatal crashes occurred at night.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.