When Jeff Morris met Chuck Lavallo back in 1999, he had no idea where the friendship would lead. Lavallo’s son had been diagnosed with leukemia and he explained to Morris that the travel to the mainland for treatments was both difficult and costly.
As it happened, Morris knew a wee bit about flying and organizing transportation. He had joined the RAF in 1959 (when he was only 15 years old) and had flown with the military until 1974 when he went on to a 22-year administrative career with Cathay Pacific Airlines in Hong Kong.
He’d just arrived in Canada when he met Lavallo, and saw the situation as something he might be able to address.
And Angel Flight of British Columbia was born. Well, sort of … the idea was born, at any rate.
It was Morris’ plan to recruit some volunteer pilots who would help transport children with cancer to their treatments. But recruiting the pilots was the easy part.
He hadn’t anticipated the three-year battle with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), one of two regulatory agencies in Ottawa (including Transport Canada) that needed to sign off on the plan.
“It was frustrating at times,” said Morris.
“There were days when I wanted to tear my hair out.”
But Morris persevered and by April of 2002 they were set to go.
That first year Angel Flight, as the service had come to be known, had eight volunteer pilots and they managed to provide the free service to 26 children with cancer.
“That was our original plan,” said Morris. “We were a service just for cancer-afflicted children … a way to help the kids through a difficult time.”
By the following year, Morris’s recruitment efforts had doubled the number of volunteer pilots. Over the years, the service continued to grow to where it could accept adult cancer victims and children with serious but non-communicable diseases as well.
Last year the number of pilots had grown to 29 and Angel Flight was able to deliver about 140 flights.
No one is paid
“The amazing thing about the service is that it is entirely voluntary,” said Morris. “Nobody, including me, gets paid a penny for doing any of this. Some of the pilots own their own planes and others rent them so that they can fly our clients. But none of them get reimbursed for their time or the use of their plane … or even the rental costs … all we pay for is the fuel.”
And Morris manages to co-ordinate all of this from his home base in Sidney on an annual budget of about $60,000. That money comes from donations from service groups and individuals who see Angel Flight for the incredible service that it is.
“We are a registered non-profit organization, and donations are all tax deductible,” said Morris.
“I should mention too that we get help from other service agencies like the Lions and others who arrange for ground transportation from the airfield to the hospitals for our clients,” he said. “Without their help it would be harder to do what we do.”
He explained that by liaising with those organizations he is able to provide a seamless, co-ordinated transportation service to those most in need at the toughest points in their lives.
Anyone can get cancer … so you’re a public airline
But despite the success of the service, it hasn’t been without its roadblocks. At one point the Canadian Transportation Agency chose to classify the service as a “publicly available air service,” a move that placed Angel Flight in the same category as a commercial airline and drastically increased the insurance costs for the service. It threatened to kill the entire program.
“I argued with them, saying that it was only a service made available to cancer victims, not the general public,” said Morris. “You know what their answer was? They said that anyone could get cancer so by their logic it was available to anyone.”
Morris said that the CTA just didn’t understand the need and perhaps thought that the service was a luxury.
“The next time you’re on the ferry to Vancouver, go to the car deck and look and you’ll likely see a parent with their child sitting in their car. It very well may be a cancer victim going for treatment. These kids are immune compromised and can’t just go to the upper decks. They make the trip in their car. Commercial flights are out of the question for the same reason,” said Morris.
The CTA’s logic didn’t sit well with Elizabeth May, the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.
“She really went to bat for us,” said Morris. “She banged her fist on a few desks until they finally reversed that decision and we were able to continue.”
“I should mention,” he added, “that we have a great relationship with Transport Canada. It has a completely different attitude to the CTA and has been nothing but co-operative and helpful.”
Only one in Canada
These days, Angel Flight continues to be the only service of its kind in all of Canada. According to Morris, he’d love to see a series of independently operated Angel Flight organizations across the country, but that would require someone like himself to be willing to step up and take up the challenge in those other centres.
The prospect of expanding his single organization to a national level isn’t in the cards, said Morris.
“If you do that, you’re suddenly faced with much higher costs … you have to have an office and staff … and our philosophy has always been to use all our money to directly help those in need.”
His only concern at the moment is to train someone to take his place.
“I’m 71 years old,” he said with a chuckle. “Who knows, I could get hit by a bus … I wouldn’t want the service to suffer as a result.”
He has recently taken on an assistant and is showing him the ropes. For more information or to donate to Angel Flight of British Columbia, go to angelflight.ca or call 250-818-0288.
— Tim Collins/News staff