COVID-19 Disrupts Public Benefit Flying, but We Are Resilient

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed life as we know it. Amid an aviation industry nosedive, sweeping stay-at-home orders, and widespread panic, the Public Benefit Flying industry–like so many others–is left to wonder what the future holds.

Each year, more than 25,000 flights are made by volunteer pilots across the country in support of humanitarian causes. Many of those flights help patients access life-saving medical care or life-changing services. Endangered animals are rescued or relocated; environmental initiatives are supported, children experience the wonders of flight; and isolated communities receive relief after natural disasters.

But with across-the-board cancellations of medical appointments, fears of transmitting or contracting the virus, and onerous restrictions affecting everything from flight currency to volunteer availability, our industry is struggling in this “new normal”. Volunteer Pilot Organizations (VPOs) around the country have been forced to temporarily suspend passenger-carrying operations.

Pilots who normally fill their free time heroically helping patients in need, are now sitting idle. Itching to fly, desperate to help, utterly helpless. Some continue to fly critical supplies in support of the crisis–delivering PPE and equipment to those on the front lines, expediting test results. Those efforts are laudable and important. But demand on the supply side has been scant and short-lived. It’s a stop-gap–small wins–but not a viable path forward for groups used to transporting hundreds of passengers to medical care each month.

To us, those passengers are not just butts in an airplane seat. They’re family. They’re people we know and love, whose outcomes matter to us. The thought of not being able to help them is gut-wrenching. The possibility of doing more harm than good, paralyzing. VPO leaders are left with excruciating decisions on whether to operate or not and none of them has made those decisions lightly.

The collateral damage from COVID-19 is yet to be seen. Delays in treatment and canceled services means that Volunteer Pilot Organizations will be needed more than ever to help patients access care.

So where do we go from here? Well that was the topic of a webinar hosted by Air Care Alliance on May 4th, 2020. As restrictions are lifted and we reassess our futures, a panel of experts weighed in on the issues faced by Public Benefit Flying organizations. The discussion was designed to help groups move forward safely and responsibly. Pilots and organizations learned the latest information about coronavirus spread, best practices for resuming operations, and how to best serve those in need.

You can watch the webinar here.

In this time of great uncertainty, one thing is clear: Public Benefit Flying is resilient. When the 9/11 terrorist attacks completely shut down the national airspace system, the first flight back in the air was a volunteer pilot flying blood to help his fellow man. The spirit of these organizations and the hearts of these pilots are unstoppable. We’ll get through this. We’ll be back to flying passengers again. And when we do, our work will be more important than ever.

Rest assured, Public Benefit Flying Organizations will be there to help the needs of humanity. And volunteer pilots everywhere will be waiting with open arms… well, maybe a mask and some hand sanitizer. 😉

Air Care Alliance continues to support public benefit flying organizations and volunteer pilots in this difficult time. Relevant resources and information related to COVID-19 can be found here

Read AOPA’s coverage of our webinar panel discussion here.


Kristinia Luke,
Executive Director, Air Care Alliance