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Wales Air Ambulance announces new aviation partner

Wales Air Ambulance

THE WALES AIR AMBULANCE CHARITY can today (February, 22) announce that its new aviation partner will be Gama Aviation Plc.

Gama Aviation has successfully bid for the seven-year contract to provide aviation services to the air ambulance in Wales, starting on January 1, 2024.

The decision has been made by the Charity’s Trustees following an extensive 18-month procurement process which included input from both aviation and medical professionals. 

The Gama contract, valued at £65 million, covers the operation and maintenance of a primary fleet of four Airbus H145 helicopters, operating from the Charity’s current sites in Dafen, Cardiff, Caernarfon and Welshpool. It additionally includes a backup H145 helicopter to ensure service continuity during periods of maintenance for the primary fleet.   

The announcement comes during an independent review of the Charity’s NHS medical partners, the Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service (EMRTS), which is being undertaken by the Chief Ambulance Services Commissioner. This has been reflected in the new aviation contract, which can adapt to potential future service delivery changes if required (revised base locations, revised operational hours, enhanced after-dark flying).

David Gilbert, Wales Air Ambulance Chair of Trustees, said: “After a robust procurement process, we are delighted to announce Gama Aviation as our next aviation partner. They are a forward-thinking and ambitious company with experience of helicopter emergency medical services in Guernsey and Jersey, as well as in Scotland. We look forward to working with them in the years to come.

“We would like to thank our current aviation provider Babcock International and its employees for their support of the service over the past 7 years.”

Marwan Khalek, Gama Aviation Chief Executive Officer, said: “I’m delighted that we will be partnering with the Charity, supporting their lifesaving mission that delivers an essential service to communities across the country. We look forward to working closely with the Charity’s team as we stand up the flight and maintenance crews, aircraft and other resources that are required to support the people of Wales.”

As forecast, the global increase in costs relating to goods and services, along with a new long-term aviation contract, will result in a significant increase in the funds needed to deliver the lifesaving service. The target to maintain the air operation, alongside the rapid response vehicle capability, will rise from £8 million to £11.2 million per year.

Dr Sue Barnes, the Charity’s Chief Executive, said: “During this procurement, the Charity and its Trustees have explored all options for the aviation services that will protect and improve our lifesaving operation. We were aware that we would face significant increases in re-contracting costs. In many ways, that is the inevitability of long-term contracting arrangements, but global factors have also exacerbated this. 

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“A like-for-like aviation service now totals just over £3 million more per annum. We were faced with a stark choice – to cut our cloth according to our existing levels of donations and reduce the number of aircraft, or rise to the challenge of maintaining our existing fleet, with the passionate and ongoing support from the people of Wales. We agreed that the right thing to do was to maintain our existing fleet. 

“There will be some who will point to recent proposals to consider changing base locations and suggest that this was a cost-saving plan when faced with difficult choices on aviation costs. Nothing can be further from the truth. These costs will be the same regardless of whether the service operates out of three bases or four. 

“Our historical contracts saw our suppliers holding the leases for all aircraft. That felt like a potential risk to our services, particularly at a time of global uncertainty. So, to protect our lifesaving service, Trustees have agreed that three of the aircraft in our service will be directly leased to the Charity. Therefore, Gama will operate and maintain four aircraft, plus a backup helicopter, on behalf of the Charity but the Charity will be the direct leaseholder for three of them. Consequently, the figure of £11.2m as our new fundraising target for 2024 represents our Gama contract, direct lease costs and fuel costs.”

The Charity can also confirm that it will extend its contracts with Caernarfon Airport and Welshpool Airport, where two of its operations are currently based, until at least 2026.

Dr Barnes said: “Our aim is to protect our services for the people of Wales while continually seeking improvements in service and availability. Proposed service improvements are the subject of a public engagement led by the Chief Ambulance Services Commissioner, to which we will contribute via an independent submission. However, time is moving on and with Gama Aviation taking over on 1 January 2024, pragmatic decisions have had to be taken.

“Given the need to ensure continuity of service and mindful of the need to give our airbase landlords some commercial certainty, we will commence our new aviation contact with our current four-base model. This will allow the Commissioner to conclude the process while allowing us to protect our lifesaving service.”