AUSTIN (KXAN) — The fleet of helicopters used in search-and-rescue operations and to transport severely injured patients to hospitals in Travis County will be getting upgrades. County commissioners considered three options Tuesday to replace STAR Flight’s decade-old helicopters.
Officials voted unanimously to replace the fleet’s three main helicopters with ones that also have firefighting capabilities. That would allow STAR Flight to sell and not replace its fourth helicopter — a Huey — which it primarily uses in firefighting . Buying three new helicopters would normally cost $30 million, but proceeds from the Huey sale and a donation from the Seton family of hospitals would reduce costs to $10 million.
Other options included keeping the fleet as it is, or reducing the fleet to two helicopters.
Two of STAR Flight’s helicopters are 2005 models purchased in 2006. The third is a 2009 model purchased in 2010. STAR Flight usually buys new helicopters every eight or nine years, so it’s been looking to upgrade for the past few years, according to program director Casey Ping.
Ping said the new aircraft come with much better capabilities — including being able to travel longer distances, carry more people and hold more water. And he compares the technology upgrades to the giant leaps made in cell phone technology. STAR Flight’s oldest helicopters have a model year two years before the very first iPhone was released.
“Operationally and from a safety perspective, new aircraft will just have components and capabilities that these (current) aircraft do not have being older,” Ping said.
Later on, county commissioners will discuss whether to hire six new staff members, which would allow two STAR Flight helicopters to be available 24/7 all year long. They’re debating if they should also hire a strategic sustainability and outreach manager to raise money for the program as a whole.
These proposed changes come as STAR Flight tripled its fees for patient transport at the beginning of August. It now costs an insurance company a $15,000 base rate and $200 per mile, when it used to cost $4,500 for county residents and $9,500 for non-county residents, plus $165 per mile. Individuals are on the hook for their deductibles and co-pays. Uninsured or under-insured patients will not be required to reimburse STAR Flight under certain conditions.
The change was meant to offset the cost to Travis County taxpayers for providing the air ambulance services.