Friday, September 23, 2011

Plane pooling: Life Flight looking for plane-buying partners.

VICTORIA - A medical evacuation company that transports more than 300 patients a year across Canada and around the world wants its own aircraft again.

Life Flight International Inc. of Sidney, B.C., acquired a jet four years ago - one previously owned in part by a disgraced financier who is now serving time in prison - but has not used the Citation II Cessna since 2009, when Transport Canada ordered new mandatory radar equipment.

Since then, the company has expanded a charter network for moving patients out of the country and bringing sick or injured Canadians home from abroad.

Now Chris Connor, who operates Life Flight with his mother, a critical care nurse who is also the company's president, is seeking investors looking to plane-pool: become fractional owners of a $3.4-million Cessna Citation V Ultra.

The investment partnership would be modelled on the company NetJets, owned by Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, where investors get chunks of time with an aircraft.

"It's for people who don't want to buy a $3-million aircraft but would like to have part of it," said Connor.

Life Flight, which marks its 20th year in January, has transported more than 7,000 patients. The company considers itself "one of the best three air ambulance services in the world."

Life Flight acquired its 32-year-old Citation II in August 2007 with two silent partners following the sensational downfall of Ian Thow, a former financial adviser who fleeced dozens of investors out of millions of dollars. He is currently serving a nine-year prison in jail.

Connor says it would cost more than $300,000 to upgrade the plane's computers to adhere to new federal regulations requiring traffic-avoidance computers, and the plane isn't worth the investment.

The older plane will be taken on trade for the newer aircraft, which is capable of travelling 2,000 nautical miles at speeds up to 400 knots.

Connor currently uses several companies to charter jets, including HeliJet International, Toronto-based Latitude and Premium Jet of Portland, Oregon. Jets come equipped with pilots while Life Flight supplies specialized medical equipment and has more than 30 medical staff under contract, all of whom work in the hospital or ambulance system.

About 60 per cent of Life Flight's business involves international travel - either bringing Canadians home or taking foreigners out. The rest involves moving patients to home provinces to free up hospital beds. Referrals are from hospitals, life and travel insurance firms and the B.C. Ambulance Service.

Recent flights include bringing a patient from Newfoundland back to Vancouver; taking a patient from Vancouver to Singapore - and on the way home picking up a Canadian in Hong Kong bound for Montreal. In an upcoming flight, it will take a critically injured man from Toronto to Jakarta.

On one recent flight, company president Isabel Connor accompanied a patient from Halifax to Dusseldorf, Germany, for seven days for stem cell research.

"It's very busy and sometimes very complicated with visa and paperwork, but it's something we enjoy doing," said Connor.

Life Flight has also clocked its share of goodwill over the decades, including transporting a student from Victoria's Camosun College, injured in a skydiving accident in California in 2008, who didn't have insurance and couldn't get home.

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