Texas oilman J. B. Coffman was tuned in the night a TV newscast scandalized a lot of people in his home town of Houston. The newscast told the story of a baby who was born three months premature but couldn't get proper neonatal care in the area because there were no vacancies in any of four Houston hospitals' neonatal centers.
It struck Coffman, chief executive of Aminoil Inc., that oil companies maintain a lot of corporate jets that are often idle but could whisk the baby to any out-of-town center at no cost to her parents. So Coffman set out to line up what he calls the "air force of the oil industry" to help out in medical emergencies.
The result is an organization called Oil Industry Lifesaving Flights, or OIL Flights, which consists of 55 companies in the oil business and other industries that lend their jets in idle hours, primarily to help out in the delicate task of bringing together transplant donors and recipients but also to assist in some other medical emergencies. The program, which also arranges emergency flights with aircraft owned by individuals, has been responsible for 47 such missions since it got under way last February.
It is one of a growing number of programs in which corporations lend their jets for medical emergencies.
Corporations have offered their aircraft to assist transplant-center programs across the country, including those at the universities of Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Minnesota, Richmond Medical College in Virginia and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In Sacramento, a pilots organization called Air Lifeline has enlisted local companies' jets to retrieve organs to be transplanted in recipients at the UC Davis Medical Center.
And in White Plains, N.Y., a 3-year-old national program called Corporate Angel Network relies on the jets of 319 companies--and two labor unions (the International Assn. of Machinists and the United Food and Commercial Workers)--to transport cancer patients for treatment across the country.
Leonard Greene, president of Safe Flight Instrument Corp. and the first to volunteer a jet for the Corporate Angel program, explains that these programs offer companies not only a chance to demonstrate their good will to the community but other benefits as well.
"It's good business management," says Greene, a member of the Corporate Angel board of directors. "It's an opportunity to show people in the community that businessmen aren't just profit-making machines out to make the poor poorer or hurt the environment."
Participation in the program has a personal meaning for Greene, whose wife died of cancer in 1965.
Greene observes that corporate jets are invaluable to businesses because getting to an out-of-town destination may mean the difference between making or failing to make an important deal. Nonetheless, he notes, the jets can remain idle for the companies for much or most of the week.
Among the participants in the Corporate Angel program are RCA Corp., Xerox Corp., PepsiCo and W.R. Grace Co. West Coast participants include Hewlett-Packard Co. and Fluor Corp.
The companies are not asked to dispatch jets on special flights, but only to make available seats on regular business flights that would otherwise go unfilled. The network uses a computer to match patients and empty seats, Greene says, much in the manner of an airline reservation system.
Oil company jets may be particularly useful for handling medical cases, since oil companies typically have their jets on standby 24 hours a day, in case company officials need to make a trip to an oil field, said Garrett R. Graham, president of Greater Houston Hospital Council. The council, a group of 82 hospitals, is the program's sponsor.
Jets are particularly useful in shuttling patients or physicians in organ-transplant cases, since organs cannot function outside a human body for more than a few hours.
Graham said corporate donors have given the OIL Flights program $168,000 to cover the cost of flights if their jets are tied up. It costs an average of $9,000 a flight to lease an "air ambulance" to carry a recipient to a medical center, or to retrieve a donated organ, he said.
OIL Flights leased such an ambulance recently to carry 13-year-old Judy Chamberlain of Denver to the University of Pittsburgh to receive a liver in a case that was given only a slim chance of success. Graham said the girl's family appealed to state officials for special financial aid to help in the transplant but were denied it on grounds that such an expenditure would be a waste.
The appeal went all the way to Gov. Richard Lamm, according to Graham. Despite the dire predictions, the operation was "delightfully successful," he said.
In that case, the rental cost more than $12,000, because the girl was critically ill and required the constant care of a physician and nurses, Graham said.
Last May, OIL Flights carried Fundisha Carroll from her home in Memphis to Tampa, where she became a successful recipient of a transplanted liver on her third birthday.
In a case last November, the program flew 2-year-old Sheila Stister of Dallas to Pittsburgh to receive a liver from the body of an 18-month-old Austin girl. The University of Pittsburgh medical team also removed the heart and one kidney to be given to other recipients, Graham said.
Among the OIL Flights program participants are Bogert Oil Co., Kerr-McGee Corp., Sun Co., Transco Energy Co. and Imco Services. (Founder Coffman's Aminoil was taken over last year by Phillips Petroleum Co.)
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's program has an affiliated nonprofit organization, the Pittsburgh Transplant Foundation. Brian Broznick of the foundation says its program has enlisted the aid of 13 Pittsburgh-area corporations but uses their jets only to fly medical center teams to a donor and bring the organ back to the center.
Since the program was begun two years ago, corporate jets have helped the center retrieve 50 organs, Broznick said.
The Corporate Angel Network, which operates from a hangar at Westchester County Airport, relies on a paid staff of one full-time and one part-time worker and about two dozen volunteers, said Priscilla Blum, the group's president. Blum, a free-lance writer, and co-founder Jay Weinberg, owner of a Westchester County car rental franchise, are recovered cancer patients.
The program saves cancer patients money, but two other benefits are more important, Blum says. "We want to allow them the dignity of traveling this way, and, most important, show them that somebody cares," she says.