When Covid-19 first made its way to the U.S. early last year, Indianapolis-based TxJet, like other charter operations, found itself in a demand slump. But it was a momentary pause because TxJet’s primary cargo is human organs and the medical teams that transplant them. "Tx" is an abbreviation used for organ transplantation in medical parlance.
“[It] was a challenge for us,” said TxJet COO Steve Johnson. “A lot of transplant programs, in the beginning, were frankly not transplanting because we didn’t understand the virus, we didn’t understand how we were safely going to transplant people. [But] we flew, and we kept flying [and] we’ve been able to come through this very well.”
Started in 2014 with one Cessna Citation CJ3, TxJet is a nonprofit arm of the Indiana Donor Network. It was originally conceived as a service to transplant centers and organ procurement organizations (OPOs) within the borders of Indiana, but its service has since expanded to include a broader swath of transplant centers and OPOs. In 2019—the most recent year for which it has data—TxJet flew 580 organ transport missions in 38 states, a 29 percent increase from the 447 missions flown in 2018.
“We started just to support our local transplant programs,” Johnson explained. “Our aspirations were simply to solve the need that was at hand, which was our local transplant centers. As we got established and felt like we knew what we were doing, and that we were doing a good job and people were very satisfied with what we were able to accomplish, we started taking on business with other transplant centers and OPOs that were regionally based.” Because TxJet is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, its clients are only charged TxJet’s costs. “We look at what our expense of operation is,” Johnson said. “We look at the number of flights we’re going to do, we divide it up and obviously that’s how we come up with our expense associated with what we charge our transplant centers and OPOs.”
Johnson said TxJet’s sole focus on the transportation of human organs and transplantation teams makes it unique versus traditional Part 135 operators. Human organs become less viable the longer they remain outside the human body. TxJet staff and flight crews understand that race against time.
“Your traditional 135 operators do a fantastic job at what they do but there are a lot of considerations when it comes to flying organs and teams,” he said. “You have all the same expectations that users of all 135 [operators] have as far as safety, reliability. But you’re just stepping it up one notch more, knowing that half an hour delay means something.”
TxJet recently purchased two new CJ3+s, which Johnson explained is an airframe that provides the organization “the reliability, the technology, and the versatility” to be able to fly in all types of weather and to do so efficiently in long and short leg flights, he said. The light twinjets are operated by a team of 14 pilots—all of whom have an ATP rating and are trained as captains—who fly two-pilot missions, which exemplifies TxJet’s focus on safety.
“The cockpit resource management that goes on in a two-pilot operation we completely believe is best practice and should be an industry standard,” he added. “Our aviators are pilots just like the rest of the charter industry, but they also speak the language. They understand the criticality. They know that they have a lifesaving organ on board that still has to get to its destination.”
TxJet also employs a full-time A&P mechanic to service its fleet who is augmented by the Textron Aviation Service Center at Indianapolis International Airport, Johnson noted. “The service center has recognized the mission associated with TxJet and it is just absolutely incredible that these guys will drop anything when we have an AOG to make sure that these airplanes are back up and ready to fulfill their mission,” he said. “Everyone at that repair center understands who’s on the other end of it and it’s actually a really touching thing in aviation to see people behave that way.”
As for what’s next at TxJet, Johnson said growth will come with demand. It’s not purposely looking to expand. Rather its goal is to serve transplant centers and OPOs to the best of its ability. “We don’t have aspirations to take over the world,” he said. “We have aspirations to make sure that we save as many lives as we possibly can through providing aviation solutions in the transplant environment.”