Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 24 seconds.
For more than four decades, Metro Aviation has been at the forefront of the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) industry, leading the way on several key innovations that have now become common practice in the sector today.
With its founder Mike Stanberry progressively handing over the family-owned operation to the next generation, Vertical connected with son Todd Stanberry to discuss the future of the company, as well as the HEMS industry at large.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vertical: 2022 was a significant year for Metro as the company celebrated its 40th anniversary. Looking back over the last four decades, what would you say are some of your biggest accomplishments?
Todd Stanberry: You know, Jen — Metro has been so blessed. Thanks to my father’s foresight and the amazing determination of a lot of really smart, hard-working folks, we have been able to do some pretty incredible things.
The use of NVGs [night vision goggles], building the world’s first full-motion, Level D simulator for the EC135 and later the EC145, and our innovations in flight data monitoring [FDM], via Outerlink’s IRIS, are just a few that come to mind.
But our biggest accomplishment is our people. We have some truly gifted humans, and they are so extraordinarily humble and proud of their work, as they absolutely should be. I have lost count of how many unsolicited compliments we have received from customers and peers. They tell stories about how someone went the extra mile, or came in on their time off, or drove across the country to deliver a part — you name it. I likely have an email or a text message talking about somebody that did it — just because it was the right thing to do. That’s real. That’s something no amount of money will ever buy, and it’s precisely what makes us who we are.
Vertical: Can you highlight how the company has grown or evolved over the years in terms of geographical regions, customers served, completions conducted, etc.?
Todd Stanberry: We’ve never had any kind of strategic vision about a certain geographical area or growth metric. We’re just not a growth-oriented company. We are just as content with five contracts as we are with the 43 that we are so blessed to have now. Did you know we don’t have a sales team? Actually, we don’t have a single salesperson. Strangely enough, we’ve nearly tripled in size every 10 years. I think that’s just been a byproduct of doing what we say we are going to do.
We’re not trying to be a jack of all trades. We have stayed true to just being an aviation company and trying to be the safest we can possibly be.
As for completions, the last time I checked, we were at 542 completions since our inception — a lot of those are on the EC135 and EC145. But Amy McMullen, our truly amazing configuration coordinator, I think she’s delivered several more just in the past week or so.
Completions has been a mainstay for Metro. When we first started, that was probably 70% of our revenue. Now, it’s probably more like 25% to 30%, with the bulk of our revenue being on the operations side. Again, this wasn’t planned, but it has been extremely beneficial to have two complimentary business segments. Because many of the completions we do are for our operations customers, we get real-time feedback that is utilized to continually improve the products we are turning out.
Vertical: Metro has faced some of its biggest challenges in 2022, such as its dispute with the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS). How did Metro deal with those challenges?
Todd Stanberry: I certainly am not one to cast stones. But you asked, so I’ll say this: it was never about Metro. It’s about our customers, the industry, and what is right. Our customers were coming to us saying, ‘Why should we be a part of this organization? What are they doing for us? What part of their mission is helping fulfill ours?’ We got those questions enough times that when we asked them [to AAMS], we didn’t get great answers, so we parted ways.
It was really sad because we had been partners with AAMS for so long — all the way back to its beginning. But, I do believe in never slamming the door on anything or anyone, and I sincerely hope there’s a way to come back together. I hope that that day exists somewhere down the road.
As far as other industry challenges, yes, we’ve had our share. But again, what’s allowed us to persevere is simple: it’s our people.
When we started in a single-wide trailer at the Baton Rouge ‘Metro’ Airport — hence the name, by the way — with literally my father and a buddy and could barely pay the electric bill, and now we’re at almost 1,100 employees, 28 states and 170 aircraft, who would’ve thought we’d have that many wonderfully talented folks all pulling together to make all this really unbelievable stuff happen?
Vertical: We are starting to see leadership changes at Metro. How does this bode for the future of the company? What is your vision for Metro going forward?
Todd Stanberry: Well, I hope it bodes well, Jen. Seriously, the ‘sustainability’ part of our vision is going to be key, and we’re working on that. I know you’re tired of me saying it, but it’s just a fact. We have the best people. Our team — everyone from our facilities folks, to records, admin, training, HR, operations and maintenance — they have all done a stellar job at finding the absolute finest individuals on the planet.
You walk around these halls and it’s electric. They love what they do, and they tell you about it. It’s infectious. You want more. That’s what I see for Metro, and it’s certainly not just me. We all see that vision. Taking that lightning we’ve managed to put in a bottle and continuing to replicate it. If you don’t have people who are empowered and want to come to work everyday because they love it, because they want to succeed — not because you told them to but because they have that desire — well, you don’t have much of anything. You might as well close the doors.
We’re doing some pretty unbelievable things here, and I hope to see more folks joining us to make more unbelievable things happen. I also can’t go any further without mentioning Kenny Morrow, our chief operating officer. Kenny has been here almost 30 years and it’s because of his tireless dedication and strong leadership that we are where we are. He’s running the place now and it’s truly remarkable what he accomplishes in a day in support of our employees and our customers.
Vertical: In terms of Metro’s completion work, can you talk about what the company’s strategy has been up to this point, and how you see the completion side of the business evolving or growing going forward?
Todd Stanberry: On the completion side, we’re mission-agnostic. While most of our completions are in the EMS space, we also do law enforcement, utility, VIP, and others.
Generally speaking, since COVID, we’ve seen a constriction of capital and people holding back on buying new equipment. When I look at all the OEMs, the market doesn’t seem to be offering anything in the light to medium twin class that is what our customers would call ‘budget-friendly.’
At least in the immediate future, you’re going to see a lot more focus on the used market, and refurbishing aircraft as opposed to buying new aircraft, at least until one of the OEMs — we hope — comes out with something a little more affordable. This gets back to the sustainability that I mentioned on the operations side, and holds true for completions as well.
Vertical: Metro has always been an early adopter of new technologies. What new technologies are emerging that you are paying attention to?
Todd Stanberry: We’ve now got about 15 aircraft equipped with weather sensors, which gives us live temperature and dew point en route that goes to our OCC [operational control center], which can then be fed back to the pilot in command. That’s a huge game-changer, especially if you’re in a more rural part of the country where you don’t have good weather reporting.
We feel we did a good job mitigating the fuel management problem that’s plagued the helicopter industry because of the IRIS [FDM] unit. One of the data labels that we’re pulling off the airframe is how much fuel is on board. Another game changer.
In the FDM space, we’re trying to figure out how to get more bandwidth. We have to use satellites to get all this information to the ground — there was just no other way historically. But we’ve partnered with a company that has figured out how to get us that same information through cellular. Our hope is to get enough bandwidth on the cellular side to augment what we’re already getting on the satellite side. We’re close to implementing this and we are really excited about it, along with some other really promising partnerships in the alternative fuels and eVTOL space.
Vertical: Can you speak to Metro’s viewpoint when it comes to safety, and outline some of your efforts in this area?
Todd Stanberry: That’s always been Metro’s cornerstone. There are basically four pillars that Metro adopted early on. The first one was vision. I talked about NVGs — that was the first thing that we adopted. Not long after that, we added HTAWS [helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems] to augment our ‘vision.’
Second big pillar, I mentioned the simulators. In partnership with FlightSafety, we developed the world’s first full-motion Level D simulators for the EC135 and later the EC145. We wanted our pilots to be able to practice maneuvers in response to real-life scenarios — auto rotations, engine failures, brownouts, whiteouts, and many others — to really refine their skills.
Third pillar, SMS [safety management system]. We had an SMS before it was fashionable in the industry, certainly before the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] mandated it. We were among the first out of 2,200 different operators that got to level four in the FAA’s voluntary SMS program.
The fourth pillar, oversight. Who’s making sure that you’re actually doing those first three pillars? That’s where IRIS comes into play because it’s monitoring in real time — all 170 aircraft — to make sure we’re doing it in accordance with manufacturers’ manuals and our operating procedures. We are very proud of everything that our safety team has accomplished in these spaces.
Vertical: Across the industry, we’re seeing recruitment and retainment as an issue for many. I understand recruitment is continuing to be a major initiative for Metro. Can you talk about Metro’s culture and how the company plans to attract and retain employees?
Todd Stanberry: That’s my favorite thing to talk about because that’s our people — the people who don’t even know they want to work for us yet. When we talk about recruiting, we’re not just talking about a job. We’re talking about a way of life.
What’s crazy is that we didn’t wait until there was a pilot shortage to start focusing on taking care of our people, Jen. We’ve been doing that for 40 years. For example, we pay 100% of the health benefits for our employees, and their spouses and dependents. No payroll deduction. That’s just one example, and we’ve done that for our entire existence. But people just love working here. We do it different here. We call ourselves a family because that is truly what we are. The only thing that we may have messed up on was that we didn’t do a good job telling our story. But our director of marketing, Kristen Holmes, has changed that and I give her and our amazing HR team, led by Britney Ratcliff, all the credit.
We’re so blessed to have people who have been with us for 20, 30, or 40 years. Bill Johnson has been our avionics shop manager ‘officially’ for 37 years this year. We were congratulating him and he said, ‘Thanks, Todd, but I have been working for this family since February 1982.’ We were incorporated in January 1982. It made me do a double take. He’s the single longest tenured Metro employee, second only to Milton [Geltz]. That’s just unheard of these days.
When I look back at Metro’s 40-year trajectory, there’s been some huge innovations that have changed the industry in a good way. But it’s the people who have made us successful. The members of the Metro family are all extremely passionate about building, operating, and maintaining helicopters, and they are extremely passionate about Metro Aviation. They don’t wear their Metro T-shirts to paint the kitchen, they wear them to their kids’ T-ball game. They are proud, and they should be. Look at what they built.
Vertical: Looking at the HEMS sector as a whole, what are some of the biggest challenges that the industry continues to face in the U.S.? How do you see the HEMS sector evolving over the next five years?
Todd Stanberry: We touched on aircraft. We touched on staffing. We touched on cost. I think I’ve already answered that question. Things are certainly not getting easier, but that’s what I love about our people. We are ready for the challenge.
I know we’re going to persevere because we’ve done it for 40 years, and we’re going to do it for 40 more. Over the next couple of years, we’re going to have to be careful about what we spend money on. We’ve got to continue to take the risks that we know — because of our expertise — how to take wisely.
Vertical: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
Todd Stanberry: I look forward to this article being a bridge to somebody getting to know more about Metro and wanting to meet us. I just love meeting people, hearing their challenges and hearing their ideas. I hope this article sparks some of those ideas. We are an open book, and we want to know more about ways that we can make this industry safer and better.