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"Cancer doesn't skip a state, and neither do we"
Corporate Angel Network is saving the lives of thousands of cancer patients across the USA. Peter H Fleiss, executive director emeritus, tells BAI more about the charity
This spring, Corporate Angel Network (CAN) will conduct its 50,000th flight. That’s tens of thousands of patients that have been flown to life-saving cancer treatments across the USA using empty seats on corporate jets since the charity began operations in December 1981. That’s quite an achievement. But the work won’t stop there, according to CAN’s executive director emeritus, Peter H Fleiss: “There are about 12,000 corporate jets flying around the USA and our goal is to get as many as possible to participate in CAN. We want to get at least enough corporations on board to be able to fly everyone who registers, which is about 500 new patients per month.”
Currently the charity fulfills about half of the requests it receives each month, flying between 225 and 250 patients to specialized treatment in far-flung areas of the country. The charity is made up of 530 corporations that donate their empty seats to patients requiring specialist cancer treatment far from home.
“CAN has evolved over time through word of mouth, media stories, doctor and hospital referrals and free advertising. Once a CEO or chairman of a board of any of the companies that have signed up conduct their first patient flight, they often become enthusiastically evolved in the concept. They talk to the patients, see first-hand the hardship the patient and their family is going through, realize how lucky they are that they or their family aren’t going through the same thing, and understand how their corporation is helping these patients, many of whom can’t fly commercially because of depleted immune systems. These executives mention their experiences to other major corporate executives who often sign up, and that is how we’ve got the ball rolling,” Fleiss explains.
Right: Peter H Fleiss, executive director emeritus, has been working with Corporate Angel Network for 16 years
The charity flies patients all over the USA, to major cancer centers as well as smaller, bespoke treatment facilities. “We fly patients from every state. Cancer doesn’t
skip a state, and neither do we,” Fleiss says. “Our patients have typically run out of treatment options at their local facilities, so they need something special if they are to survive.
“We’re often able to take them to wherever their treatment might be – a clinical trial or a facility where somebody has developed a different procedure for their specific type of cancer. The top five treatment centers we fly our patients to are the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston; Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York; Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston; Duke University Cancer Center in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Cancer Treatment Centers of America.”
Getting on board
CAN provides flights for passengers of all ages – from two-week-old babies to people in their 80s – and there are very few criteria to qualify for a flight. Patients are screened medically, must have written approval from their doctor that they are fit enough to fly, and they must have a confirmed scheduled appointment before flying. “Other than that, there really are no barriers to being accepted for the CAN program,” Fleiss explains. All the flights are free and financial situations are not taken into consideration. Patients are also able to bring a companion to accompany them on the flight and children can bring both parents.
For corporations, the process is just as easy, with only two requirements: “The corporations have to be flying pressurized aircraft and they need to have two qualified pilots on board,” explains Fleiss. “They can easily get involved by going to our website [www.corporateangelnetwork.org] and registering online, after which one of our staff will contact them. Or they can call us to discuss the process. There’s really nothing to it; we do all the work.”
Left: Patients are flown to treatment centers using empty seats on participating corporations’ private jet
Participating corporations provide their flight schedules, many automatically from their flight management software systems, directly into CAN’s custom operational software. This software then automatically, on a daily basis, matches patients’ need to travel for treatment with the flight activity of participating corporations. “We have a full-time staff of six, and 30 part-time volunteers who coordinate the related medical travel needs of patients with the scheduled flight activity of our corporate participants. Many interact with the patients, doctors and flight departments,” Fleiss explains.
Medical equipment is not required. CAN ensures that all patients are medically fit to fly prior to accepting them onto the program. Fleiss says, “We can’t have a situation where a patient might get sick during a flight and we ensure that it won’t happen. Our patients blend in with the other passengers on the flight – they are prepped on how they should dress and behave, and what they can and can’t bring.”
For the corporations who get involved, flying CAN’s cancer patients can be very rewarding, and many go out of their way to ensure the patient is comfortable. “The flight departments and the executives of the companies that fly our patients are all moved by what they’re doing. The patients sometimes get treated as well as the executives. Often the flight department will find out what special food the patient likes and they go out of their way to source it,” comments Fleiss.
“We had one situation where we flew somebody to Texas and they didn’t have a lot of money. They were going to have to stay there for a month or two for their child’s treatment. The flight department found this out and once the flight had landed in Texas, the pilots went and bought all the necessary supplies for the apartment where the family would be staying. They had become attached to the patient and the family.”
Half of the USA’s Fortune 100 companies are among the 500+ corporations that participate in CAN. NetJets, the major fractional operator owned by Berkshire Hathaway, provides an account to the charity. “Periodically we send a letter out to the NetJets owners and ask if they’re interested in donating an hour or two to our account. This often results in the donation of hundreds of hours. We use those hours only to fly cancer patients. With donated NetJets hours we’re often able to fly multiple patients on one aircraft so we get better efficiencies,” Fleiss says.
Right: Between 225 and 250 cancer patients are transported to treatment each month and can bring a companion along for the ride
More help required
Despite the nearly 50,000 flights already flown by CAN, the
charity still has to turn down patients. Fleiss says, “Although we
have more than 500 corporations on board and they fly a lot of patients, the challenge
is to find enough corporations that are flying the required routes, on the needed days, and with empty seats available for our patients. Our goal is to fly everyone we register and that is why we keep trying to recruit more corporations. The higher our potential lift capacity, the more matches we’ll be able to make.”
CAN is working closely with media outlets, both mainstream and in the business aviation industry, to promote its work, and is even starting to embrace the social media side of things to spread the word. “I also have a staff member on the road who calls on flight departments that don’t participate with us, providing these companies with the necessary information to make a decision,” adds Fleiss. “The more we’re out there, the more people learn about us, and the more calls we get from corporations who want to get involved and patients who need our help.”
CAN receives no government funding, relying solely on grants and donations to fund its work. “Sometimes donations will be from people we’ve helped, although we don’t want any money from them, we just want to help them.” Fleiss says. “We don’t ask our corporations for donations because they’re already donating their empty seats, although a lot of them probably would donate if asked.”
Several aviation organizations hold events that raise money for CAN every year. The largest is held by NBAA during its annual convention. “The NBAA/CAN Soiree, a gala type event with live and silent auctions, is a major event for us. We receive the proceeds from the auctions,” Fleiss says. Last year’s Soiree in Las Vegas raised US$500,000 for CAN, which will be used to help fly more patients.
“Without the support of the business aviation industry, we wouldn’t be able to provide such a wonderful, life-changing service,” Fleiss continues. “I’ve been working for Corporate Angel Network for 16 years and it truly is a rewarding experience. Although we can’t save everyone, we’ve saved thousands of lives in the past and will help thousands more in the future. Corporate Angel Network provides more than just a lift – it lifts the patient’s spirits as well.”
- This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of Business Airport International
April 20, 2016