David Learmount/LONDON

medical diagnosis by satellite datalink promises to make flying safer for sick passengers on Virgin Atlantic flights. The airline is to fit new equipment originally designed to monitor the health of Virgin chief Richard Branson's crew during their attempts to circle the world in a hot air balloon.

The airline describes the equipment as a three lead electrocardiogram, with devices for measuring pulse rate, pulse oxymetry (level of oxygen in blood) and blood pressure. Data will be transmitted by a crewmember in real time via a hand-held satellite transmitter/ antenna to Phoenix, Arizona-based specialist MedAire, which employs hospital staff to advise on the patient's condition and on whether a diversion is required. MedAire can also advise on desirable diversion airports.

The equipment is being developed by UK company TeleMedic. Inventor Alasdair MacDonald says that the US Department of Defense is also interested in the equipment and has successfully used it in an aircraft-to-aircraft satellite link in the Gulf. The link can be established using an aircraft's own satellite communications system, or the hand-held unit. Virgin says that the service could be in operation by "late summer".

Airlines now gamble on having medically qualified passengers on board to undertake any diagnoses.

Virgin decided to fit the equipment after one of its Boeing 747-400s was forced to divert in May 1996 to the remote Frobisher Bay airfield Baffin Island, northern Canada, when a passenger apparently suffered a heart attack. It later transpired that the passenger's condition had been misdiagnosed, being a minor non-cardiac complaint. By then the aircraft had been damaged when an engine cowling hit a fuel hydrant during taxiing at the airport.

The result was a three day aircraft grounding, estimated to have cost Virgin some $5 million in care for the 367 passengers, engineering expenses and the loss of the aircraft from the fleet.

Virgin says that the primary reason for carrying the new equipment, which costs about $15,000 per aircraft, is passenger safety. If accurate medical diagnosis avoids unnecessary diversions, it would also save passengers major inconvenience and cut costs.

Source: Flight International