by James Shillinglaw /
Your client is on that long foreign trip for business or leisure when suddenly tragedy strikes. He or she gets severely ill or has an accident that requires intensive medical care that can’t be provided abroad. How do you get the client back home?
If you’ve sold that person a good travel insurance policy with the right clause in the contract, the answer is medical evacuation. While you did your best in selling the insurance, it’s one of your fellow travel agents who now makes sure that evacuation takes place in a timely and efficient manner.
Joseph McNamara, president and CEO of Palm Beach, FL-based Sky Cap Corp., a member of Tzell Travel Group, is a specialist in medical evacuations and travel assistance, a unique niche that can ensure the health and safety of your customers when they need to be flown home due to a medical emergency.
McNamara founded his business in 2011 as the only U.S. travel management company to focus 100% on “repatriation travel.” He works with travel insurance companies, medical escort firms, air ambulances, and other travel-assistance companies around the world. He manages the agency with creative director Max Tuttle.
Roughly 95% of his clients are business travelers; most of the medical repatriations are returning from a foreign country, though the agency has begun doing repatriations between foreign countries as well. Over the past five years Sky Cap has served more than 2,500 customers around the world.
How did McNamara get his start? “I was working for a medical escort company that transferred patients worldwide on commercial aircraft with a nurse,” he said. “At the time, they weren’t using a travel agent, just online booking tools. But when it comes to this type of thing, I realized it really requires a travel agent, someone who is working on the reservations and arrangements.”
McNamara says his business has grown exponentially every year over the past five years in both revenues and sales—and continues to grow. “There’s a lot of business out there because there are not many agencies that focus 100% on medical repatriation,” he said.
A unique business model
McNamara’s business is much more than just booking a flight. “You are dealing with different departments within an airline,” he said. “You work with them on a daily basis to clear clients for travel, to make sure their diagnosis aligns with what IATA says about transporting sick or injured passengers.”
While McNamara does book private charter jets, most of his business is on commercial scheduled flights. “Every airline has different policies and procedures of how they approach that,” he said. “Typically the treating doctor has to fill out what’s called a medic and we submit that to the airline. This determines whether the passenger is fit for travel. And then we go from there.”
Like many successful travel professionals, McNamara get his customers entirely by word of mouth: “I started doing it for one medical escort company and then they referred me to different assistance companies and travel insurance providers. So that’s typically the bulk of our business—either travel-insurance providers or medical-escort providers.”
The complete focus on this one niche is likely to remain, he said. “If a customer comes to us and asks us to book a cruise or a vacation, we’ll typically refer them to another Tzell agent. It’s just not where our expertise is. And we want to make sure we pay 100% attention to this industry, because it has a lot of intricate details that need to be met.”
McNamara acknowledges that he is largely self-taught, though he used Sabre’s online training tools to understand the airline reservation and booking system. He also has taken advantage of Tzell’s online training program to learn how to maximize revenue and commissions.
Most of the airline travel McNamara books is international, and each trip can involve multiple bookings, including the patient and a nurse or doctor. And many of these passengers fly in premium or first-class because they need to be in the front of the aircraft. So commissions can be substantial.
In the end, though, McNamara attributes his success to a total focus on his niche from which he does not deviate. “It’s my bread and butter,” he said.
What’s the most challenging medical repatriation he has ever faced? One of the most difficult is a stretcher transport, because it typically requires that the airline remove seats from an aircraft. Most U.S. carriers are reluctant to do that, but it is more common with European and Asian airlines. A stretcher on a commercial aircraft typically costs $40,000 to $60,000, versus a private jet, which can cost upward of $100,000, McNamara said.
Indeed, McNamara says the variety of challenges his agency faces helps keep it interesting. “We love what we do,” he said. “Every day is new; every day is exciting. I think that’s what most agents would say, but every day we really don’t know what we’re walking into. It depends on something going wrong for someone else in the world. We can never predict whether at 9 a.m. it will start super-busy or if it will get super-busy at 12 midnight.”
If you would like to be considered for a Super Agent profile because of your success, innovative approach to business, specialized niche, or unique business model—or have a friend you’d like to nominate—please email me firstname.lastname@example.org, or TMR’s editor Cheryl Rosen at email@example.com.