Hope Air sees soaring demand for medical flights from Fort McMurray

The non-profit says more Canadians are struggling to afford travelling to cities for critical medical procedures.

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An organization that helps fly people in rural Canada to their medical appointments says demand in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region is growing.

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Jon Collins, chief development officer of the non-profit group Hope Air, said the non-profit group arranged 20 free travel arrangements for patients who needed treatment outside Fort McMurray. In 2023, that number rose to 50 trips. Hope Air has arranged 29 trips this year from Fort McMurray and is on track to exceed 2023’s numbers. This trend is being seen across rural Canada, he said.

“Communities like Fort McMurray want to retain their residents. People know and love the communities that they live in and that they grew up in, and they don’t want to leave,” Collins said in an interview. “We want them to be able to stay, not go into debt by missing work and constantly purchasing flights and accommodations. If the alternative is leaving town, we want to help them stay.”

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Collins was speaking as a group of volunteer pilots with Hope Air flew across Canada for the organization’s “Give Hope Wings” fundraiser. This included a stop at the Fort McMurray International Airport on June 21.

Since 1986, Hope Air has provided more than 170,000 travel arrangements for patients, regardless of age or medical need. Sometimes patients are flown to larger cities by volunteer pilots. Other times, patients are put on a mainstream commercial airline. A similar organization called Angel Flight Alberta also partners patients with volunteer pilots in communities.

Hope Air estimates 33 per cent of patients would cancel their appointments without their help. Both organizations are responses to a common problem across Canada’s rural and northern communities: medical treatments may be free, but people can still spend thousands of dollars on food, hotels, travel and missed wages when they need to travel regularly to larger cities for treatment.

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Sometimes people in cities also face these challenges. Doug McNair, a volunteer pilot with Hope Air and the expedition captain of the Give Hope Wings campaign, recalls having to help the family of a young in Calgary girl travel to Edmonton for surgeries. The family did not have a car and the mother struggled to find people to help them.

“There’s a lot of pressures on families in those situations,” said McNair, who added in an interview that commercial flights are becoming more expensive across Canada.

“There’s growing demand across the country, but also a lot of work to be done to make people aware of this issue.”

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