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Is the plane that transports Ebola patients completely safe?


Phoenix Air Group is the airline that transports Ebola patients out of Africa to hospitals where they can get advanced medical care.
Phoenix Air Group is the airline that transports Ebola patients out of Africa to hospitals where they can get advanced medical care.
© Tami Chappell/Reuters/Corbis

When we fly the friendly skies we know — at least on some level — that in between flights, a cleaning crew comes in and tidies up the plane for the next batch of travelers. Every airline does this, but there's one airline that takes clean to the next level. And it's an airline you've probably never heard of.

Phoenix Air Group transports severely ill and highly contagious patients from one part of the world to another. It's also the airline that transports Ebola patients out of Africa to hospitals where they can get advanced medical care.

Typically, Ebola patients airlifted out of Africa are health care workers who've contracted the virus through working with infected people under insufficient medical conditions. For example, in August 2014, a special plane flew two health care workers from Africa to Atlanta, Georgia, for treatment after they contracted the virus.

During an Ebola outbreak, health care workers are among those most at risk of contracting the disease. Health care workers often perform their jobs in remote areas under unsanitary medical conditions and can come into contact with patients' bodily fluids, which transmit the disease [source: Freedman].

Symptoms of Ebola include:

  • Fever and weakness
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Impaired organ function
  • Internal and external bleeding

If someone contracts Ebola and begins exhibiting symptoms, he or she can rapidly become severely ill. Getting a patient back to his or her home country for medical care is paramount, and air travel is the quickest way to do it. However, because the more severe symptoms involve bodily fluids, a patient must be transported in the safest, most sterile way possible in order to prevent infecting others.

Enter Phoenix Air.

The two health care workers flown from Africa to the United States in summer 2014 didn't travel on a regular passenger plane or even a private jet. They traveled on what Phoenix Air calls "Emergency Rooms in the Sky." These planes, used exclusively for patient evacuation and transfer, are custom equipped to handle sick and contagious people.

Providing air ambulance services for more than 20 years, Phoenix Air first partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2003 during the SARS outbreak [source: Crist]. The two organizations worked together and designed the perfect airplane to transport contagious patients safely from one end of the world to the other, without spreading infection. The CDC has official guidelines for all air medical transport services. These incredibly comprehensive guidelines include [source: CDC]:

  • Coordination with public health and aviation authorities at departure and arrival points
  • Infection-control policy implementation
  • Properly trained personnel
  • Correct use of personal protective equipment

Fortunately, the CDC never needed their services during the SARS outbreak, but when the Ebola patients needed help, Phoenix Air was ready.

So how do you take a regular plane and turn it into a safe, sterile ambulance in the sky while ensuring the health and safety of the pilot, the crew and the medical professionals on board (not to mention the patient)?

Ebola: A Global Outbreak?