When transplanting an organ, time plays a key role. And the less the transfer process takes, the more chances of success the graft will have. Therefore, when the patient who is going to be transplanted is not in the same city as the donor - this happens in 25% of cases in Spain - there is often no choice but to fly. Literally, because the properly protected organ has to be transported by plane.
In this case, he is the passenger with the most privileges on board. There is always a ticket available no matter what day it is. Their flights take off with priority and if you are delayed, they will wait for you. He flies in the cockpit with the pilots and there is always someone waiting for him at the foot of the runway when he disembarks.
Rebeca Bajo, transplant coordinator nurse at the National Transplant Organization (ONT), explains that when the need arises to transport an extracted organ, the first step is to find a regular flight whose schedules match the times of the extraction teams. In that case, “we contact the company and request the transfer, we also communicate the operation to the CECOAs of all the airports involved. From the moment we are warned of the need to transfer an organ until it boards the plane, little time usually passes. The most important thing is that it is an agile process and that the ONT coordinators process it quickly.”
This generosity of the airlines is added to that of the donors' families and allows our country to be proud of being a world leader in donation and transplants. In 2022 alone, a total of 5,383 transplants were performed, 13% compared to the previous year.
The ONT and Vueling have been collaborating for ten years. A decade in which the airline has transported more than 900 organs, becoming the airline that transports the most organs.
In the case of commercial flights, the organs that are transported the most are livers and kidneys, due to ischemia (lifetime of the organ outside the body). Other organs, such as the lung, are usually transported through private means. These organs travel in a refrigerator that "is transferred to the airport by different means, depending on each autonomous community: taxis, ambulances, private cars, firefighters... all of them collaborate with the ONT and directly access the runway to make direct delivery to the crew." "explains Rebeca Bajo.
“We are tremendously grateful to collaborate with the ONT and to be able to contribute our grain of sand in such an important action. Solidarity action is part of Vueling's DNA and as a leading airline in connectivity within the territory of the Spanish state, we are proud to be able to put our operations at the service of those people who need it most," highlights Sandra Hors, Director of Communication, Public Affairs. and Sustainability of Vueling.
The arrival of an organ is always unpredictable, but there is a millimeter action protocol that connects the ONT, Vueling and AENA to find a ticket on the first available flight. “Turnaround time can vary, from a few hours for flights scheduled for the same day to sometimes the night before if the flight is scheduled for early the next day,” Hors says.
Once the protocol for the transfer is activated, it becomes absolute priority. However, it must be taken into account that, until you arrive at the plane, you must face other external elements such as traffic or possible delays in access. For this reason, explains Hors, “we try to work with the greatest possible margin, but if there is a delay in the arrival of the organ to the aircraft, it is expected.” To counteract these situations, these flights have priority, both in the allocation of slots and in departure en route.
Cinema and medical series have shown us on countless occasions what it is like to donate and transport an organ within a hospital. Rarely, however, does he focus on the minute by minute of his plane ride. The entire device is put into operation when the donor hospital contacts the ONT and it generates the transfer request. “This request reaches Vueling through Customer Response, our administrative rapid response department. There begins coordination with flight operations, the airport, the crew and the handling equipment to receive the notice and transfer the relevant documentation that will allow the transfer to be carried out,” says Joaquín Capella, company commander.
What from the outside seems like a frenetic fit, from the inside is lived relatively normally. “It is a very coordinated procedure where each person knows very well what they have to do. Furthermore, it is quite common. So far this year we have transferred 124 organs, almost one in every three days,” says Capella.
The crew receives the documentation issued by the ONT with information on the type of organ, the donation and reception hospitals, and the airports of departure and arrival. All this documentation is provided digitally along with the daily flight dispatch, where they have all the flight instructions, weather conditions and other data necessary to fly. “It is information for internal use, it is not communicated to the passenger,” she points out.
The transfer of organs can occur between any of the cities that Vueling connects in Spain. In the case of Barcelona, although a high number of transplants are performed in this city, this does not prevent “from Barcelona we also transfer organs to other hospitals in the Canary Islands, Galicia, Andalusia or the Balearic Islands,” recalls this commander.
As the priority passenger that it is, the organ arrives at the foot of the plane in an authorized ambulance and is guarded by the commander himself. “The refrigerator travels in the cockpit stowed on a seat, that is, well secured so that it does not move while cruising. We operate with Airbus 319, 320 and 321 and in the cockpit there are almost always two free seats. They are reserved for the instructors when we undergo an inspection or some in-flight exam, but, if not, they are empty. And that is where we located the stowed refrigerator,” details the commander.
The health personnel who bring the organ to the airport finish their part of the work there. The organ flies, without the need for medical personnel, under the command of the commander. “He is responsible for reception at the airport of departure and for delivery at the airport of arrival. At the conclusion of the transportation, we issue an internal report with the details of the flight that serves to close the documentation for that transfer,” he explains. In all his years of service, this commander has experienced several organ transfers. “It is something that fills you with satisfaction. You have the feeling of being part of something very positive. And at the same time, an enormous responsibility,” he concludes.