With operators worldwide struggling to find and employ the right aircrew for their needs, prospective hires often have several employment options to consider. Financial remuneration can be an important factor, but Metro Aviation illustrates that selecting the right position should be predicated on an appreciation of the entire employment package.
Mike Stanberry founded Metro Aviation in 1982 as a helicopter charter, flight training and maintenance operation. In 1983 the company entered the air-medical sector, contracting to provide a helicopter ambulance service for Schumpert Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana a MD500D that was shared with the TV station across the street from the hospital. Forty years later, Stanberry remains the CEO of the privately held family company, sharing ownership with his two children and employing over a thousand pilots, mechanics, and support personnel with 165 helicopters and airplanes on EMS operations throughout the United States. Today, the company also operates aircraft completions facilities and a training center.
Metro, like all operators in the current environment, is experiencing the industry-wide challenge of finding good pilots and mechanics as airlines actively poach flight crew from the rotary-wing sector, and other operators offer what appear at first glance to be attractive salary packages. Metro, however, differs in significant ways from most EMS operators. We spoke at length with Metro management and operational personnel to clarify why aviation professionals should take a good, hard look at what the company has to offer.
Metro runs what can be referred to as a ‘traditional’ air-medical program model and is the largest such traditional operator in the world. Operating a Part 135, purely aviation operation that has operational control of aircraft that can be owned by either Metro or the customer, the company supplies the pilots, mechanics and maintenance. The customer, for their part, is responsible for where the aircraft flies, the medical staff, the medical care provided in the aircraft, where the patients are taken and all patient billing. “Our revenue comes from the hospitals and ambulance companies, who pay us a fixed monthly fee and an hourly fee,” advised Kenny Morrow, who is Metro’s Chief Operations Officer who has been with the company for 27 years. The company’s customer list includes such established hospitals as Tampa General and Cleveland Metro, and the University hospitals of Augusta, Utah and Michigan, just to name a few. “They’re stable, long-term clients who are not going to disappear, but their reimbursement is very controlled as a large percentage of their revenue comes from government payers, such as Medicare and Medicaid and they usually have in-network agreements with commercial payers (insurance companies).”
He explained that independent operators, on the other hand, are typically out of network with insurance companies. They therefore have more latitude to increase their revenue and it’s that type of operation that can come under fire for egregious billing practices. “Independent operators don’t generally work for the hospital. They can set up a base and employ not just the pilots and mechanics, but also the nurses and medics, and they can go for reimbursement direct from whoever is the end payer responsible for that patient. In their model every base has to be profitable, so if it’s not, they just close up and shut it down,” he concluded.
Although the traditional model is generally more restrictive in terms of available revenue, it has the major advantages of stability and security, with long term contracts and a more predictable income stream. Kristen King Holmes, Director of Marketing, came to Metro from a background including Army Reserve service with two deployments to Iraq and as a well-known media personality. She elaborated, “The independents are not getting paid unless they fly, but we’re getting paid whether we fly or not.” This means that there is no pressure for Metro pilots to complete flights that may incur a higher than desirable level of risk, making for an inherently safer, less stressful flying environment. Morrow observed that pilots, however, seemed to generally look at two principal factors: money and geography. Obviously, where one lives and works and earning sufficient income play major parts in ensuring a desired quality of life, but there are many other equally relevant factors that make for a rewarding, happy and satisfying career.
Metro’s huge success makes it a highly attractive proposition for other air-medical operators looking to expand their business and offers have certainly been made, some rather aggressively. Stanberry’s son and Metro co-owner Todd Stanberry is also active in company management, in the position of Director of Business Integration. Both he and his father have made it abundantly clear, however, that the company is not for sale at any price, because no buyer could maintain the cultural values that define Metro Aviation. Morrow and Holmes both joked that, although both Stanberry’s hate to be told they are very much alike, they are similar in those aspects that make a real difference, citing their compassion and a passion for the company and its people. Being a family company has a major impact on all aspects of Metro’s operation. The Stanberry’s takes a personal interest in all their staff and their staff’s wellbeing, as evidenced recently during the covid pandemic. According to Holmes, Mike personally telephoned every employee affected by covid and the calls were no cursory ‘lip service’ efforts. “It wasn’t just a matter of ‘how are you doing, and we’ll see you back in a week’,” she said. “He spent twenty to thirty minutes on every call, checking on how they were feeling, their symptoms, how the rest of their family and friends were doing, asking if there was anything the company could do to help out, letting them know they were to take as much time off as they needed and just talking about whatever came up.” Morrow also advised that Todd and Mike Stanberry both speak personally to every new hire class that goes through Metro, relating, “We get a lot of feedback from the pilots about that, and one of the things that Mike tells the pilots is ‘You are never going to be pressured to take a flight. If you make a sound aviation decision and turn down a flight, I don’t care what anybody else says, I’ve got your back and will stand up for you.’”
It's about Culture
“The main reasons for a pilot to look at Metro are our culture, the focus on safety instead of profitability, and the fact that we’re exclusively an aviation company, whereas most of our largest competitors employ more medical personnel than aviation personnel,” Morrow observed.
When it comes to pay, Metro is looking at building a calculator to assist people in making an informed decision, due to the false impression that solely looking at base pay can create. He pointed out that Metro personnel have no payroll deductions for healthcare. In fact, the company pays the entire cost of a high-end healthcare program that it adds to the employment package. This healthcare covers not only the employee, but also their dependents and spouse if the spouse does not have healthcare coverage through their own employer and will top up payments from other packages that fall short. With a value of up to or beyond US$20k per employee (depending on age and dependents), Metro’s pay is an average of ten to fourteen percent above the previous remuneration for employees of an air ambulance operation recently partnering with Metro. “Metro Aviation is one of very few companies in North America that provides full healthcare coverage for employee, spouse and dependents, and Mike decided a long time ago that it was his moral responsibility to provide that,” Morrow explained. If an employee does not require the coverage, for example ex-military personnel having existing comprehensive cover, they can decline it and receive an extra $5,000 per year on their base pay instead.
Metro also pays a sign-on bonus for new employees, paying them an extra $2,000 lump sum after ninety days and a further $5,000 at the end of their first year. “We also have geographical modifiers for harder-to-fill positions,” Holmes noted. One example is for crews posted to the Hopi native-American reservation. Non-natives are not permitted to live on the reservation and there are currently no Hopi pilots, so crews are compelled to live away. “They can’t live there, so naturally they’re commuting, and you’ve just got to pay them more because it’s so inconvenient. In addition, most of them live in Tucson which entails an hour and a half commute each way,” Morrow stated, giving another example of a modifier of around fifteen thousand dollars for pilots based at a small South-Louisiana town. Vacancies and new positions that do arise are generally advertised first internally, giving opportunities to existing staff before opening the position to new hires.
With recruiting and retaining pilots so problematic, many operators utilize recruitment agencies is utilized to find new pilots and mechanics. These recruiting agencies can be very expensive, so the company has established an in-house referral program whereby existing employees who successfully refer a new hire receive a referral bonus, recently increased to US$10k. Morrow related that the program is popular, with some pilots being such enthusiastic recruiters that they supplement their income by almost US$100k, just from referral bonuses. “We’ve got pilots that once they finish their shift, become almost full-time recruiters. With over 600 pilots and 350 mechanics, each of whom know another hundred people, we should have the same reach as a recruiting company, and I’d much rather see that money go to one of our people.” Holmes added that HR Director Britney Ratcliff and the Metro recruiter work closely with veteran’s agencies and military groups to open dialogue with military personnel who may be looking to transition to a civilian career.
The fleet of aircraft operated by Metro predominantly consists of immaculate, very late model twin-engine Airbus machines, such as the EC135, EC145 and EC145e-Lite. Machines are all maintained to the highest standards and Morrow commented, “There’s no reason to ever find anything on one of our machines that isn’t top-notch. When a mechanic asks for a part, there’s not even an approval process, we just send it to him. Basically, all our mechanics have a blank cheque to do whatever they need to do to keep the aircraft in great shape. And not just mechanically, but also upholstery, interior, absolutely everything on the aircraft.” To facilitate this, the company holds a huge inventory of spares and Morrow advised that around US$250k of inventory is held for each operational helicopter, making a total of about US$40 million in spares. “Our mechanics and pilots are never out there on their own,” Holmes remarked. “We’ve got their backs and are there to get them whatever they need. They are free to pick up the phone and call their lead or their regional supervisor. Even Mike (Stanberry) has a genuine open-door policy and if you call his cell phone right now, he’d pick up and talk to you.”
Every year the lead pilots and lead mechanics are brought in for a training meeting, where they can talk to the directors of safety, maintenance and operations, and motivational and guest speakers come in to speak. “We do regular leadership meetings with the Metro leadership team and we’re heavily investing in our people, because it’s the people that make Metro,” said Holmes. She acknowledged that personnel at headquarters get to do lots of fun activities and she is working with Ratcliff to come up with kits to send out to all the bases, getting everyone involved for events and holidays. “We want to make sure we extend that family feel. We’re coming up with gifts that we can send from Metro for such things as new babies, weddings or a child’s graduation. It’s common to spend $100 or $120 on flowers when someone loses a family member or close friend and we thought, we recognize all those deaths, why aren’t we also celebrating all those good things in someone’s life? We have one employee whose mother is a breast cancer survivor and they felt comfortable enough to contact us, asking if we could do something for breast cancer awareness. We thought that was a good idea and so we are designing pink shirts for everyone company-wide to wear during breast cancer awareness month and will match the proceeds and donate it all to breast cancer research.”
The company operates a comprehensive employee assistance program that includes, among other benefits, an entitlement to five free mental health visits every year and assistance with childcare or with aging parents. “There are a ton of things under this program that you can get help with,” Holmes enthused, and continued, “Then there’s the whole culture of family within the company. When the hurricane hit Louisiana, a number of Metro employees were affected, their homes flooded, and valuables ruined. Inside Metro, we took up a collection to help out our fellow employees, because we cared and that’s what you do.”
Such intangibles are not apparent to an outsider first looking at Metro, however, and Holmes explained that the company is conducting a ‘service blueprint’ process for applicants in the hiring process. “We’re going through the applicant journey and finding every single point that they’re interacting with Metro along the way, to determine how we can make that process better. Then we’re going to do the same thing with our current employees. Okay, now you’re at Metro, how do we mentor you, make sure you’re in the right spot and communicate with you about what you need? Our whole goal with this is when someone qualified applies and gets to the point where they come to Shreveport to meet us, talk to the team, do the sim training, get the tour, and see our facilities, they’ll then phone their spouse and say, ‘I don’t care what anyone else offers, I’m working for this company.’ I think the only reasons people don’t join us is that they don’t get the big picture of the salary and benefits package, or we just don’t have a base where they want to be.” Agreeing with Holmes, Morrow also commented that a major factor behind the service blueprint process was the recognition that the company needed to spend far more effort on employing good people than on garnering new business and customers.
According to Holmes, every review and submission from both unsuccessful and successful applicants and all input from existing employees is listened to or read, reviewed and assessed. “We take it all to heart and are willing to change, to make improvements. We’re not a company that believes that this is just the way it is and the way it’s always going to be, we actually want to make people happy and the people at Metro genuinely care about one another. We have tons of family members too, we have husbands, wives and their kids working here,” she stressed. The family culture within Metro is the primary reason that the typical length of service for staff is well above industry averages. “That’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my job,” Morrow opined. “We have a lot of people with many years of service here. I’ve been here for 27 years, Kristen’s been here for almost ten years already, longer than she’s been married. More than one of our longest-term employees has been able to retire from Metro with more than a million dollars put aside.”
Need Good People
Expanding on the culture within Metro Aviation, Holmes believes that the number one key is hiring good people. “That’s a lot of Mike’s success. He’s a really smart guy but something that he does really well is find the right people. He sees the potential in people and where they are suited to fit into the organization. When good people work together, you have a really sound, supportive culture,” she said. “We’re much more likely to hire someone because they’re a good cultural fit, than we are to hire someone to fill a position,” Morrow elaborated. He explained that, as part of the hiring process, prospective hires not only attend corporate interviews to assess their qualifications and suitability for Metro, but then also meet with the position’s local management and tour the base. The contracting customer is also given the opportunity for a sit-down meeting with the new hire as they will be working with them on a daily basis, giving everyone a chance to assess how well they will fit in and work together.
“In any company, everything happens from the top down,” Holmes observed. “Whatever the mindset of the leadership is, that’s the mindset that will permeate the entire organization. Mike is someone who could take his money, live his life, and travel the world, leaving us to run the company. But he won’t leave because he loves what he does, and that’s the culture that trickles all the way down.” Morrow related a story about one of the company meetings to illustrate Mike Stanberry’s nature, recalling, “Kristen was still on maternity leave, but she wanted to come in for a quarterly meeting. She came in and brought her baby girl with her, so we had the meeting and Mike sat back in his chair with his feet up on the desk, calmly holding her baby girl through the whole thing. I tell you; it was the calmest, most docile meeting we’ve ever had.”
Holmes summarized what she feels makes Metro such a great company to work for, saying, “The bottom line is that Metro cares about its people. We’re privately owned, answer to nobody else and have the freedom to fix anything that needs to be fixed without a lot of bureaucracy. We are highly invested in safety and have made tremendous changes within the air-medical industry. We’re not afraid to take risks if we believe it will make something better.” As an example, she noted the significant time and energy Metro has invested in the Outerlink IRIS product, to provide real-time comprehensive flight and location data monitoring and transmission, with constant voice and video communication capability, all with the goal of adding to air safety. “This is more than a job; it has a purpose. People are coming to realize more and more that life is too short to be miserable at work. We believe that too and and we want people to love what they do.” Morrow’s viewpoint is similar, and he added, “We want our people to be at their very best and in a great frame of mind, because when they’re at work, they are dealing with people who are in a really bad way or even close to death. Everything Kristen said is right, and for pilots it’s important that the company’s sole focus is on aviation, safety and operating for well-established EMS providers. We work with university hospitals, children’s hospitals, the cream of the crop in the United States, healthcare-wise.” It is difficult to argue with such logic and sentiment.