Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

To the rescue: Air ambulance company ready to fly anywhere on the planet to help

Jet ICU, a Tampa based air ambulance company, is on a mission: both to grow its specialized services in the clouds and a unique insurance operation on the ground.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 12:00 p.m. May 13, 2021
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Mark Wemple: Mike Honeycutt, who founded Jet ICU, with his father Bill, who runs the company's insurance division, Missionary Travel Association.
Mark Wemple: Mike Honeycutt, who founded Jet ICU, with his father Bill, who runs the company's insurance division, Missionary Travel Association.
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
  • Share

When the missionary fell off the roof in Ukraine, no one realized he’d suffered a stroke.

It would be a while before anybody figured it out. By the time they did, he was in pretty bad shape.

Back home in Iowa, his family and church were desperately looking for ways to get him back and, more importantly, to get him the medical care he desperately needed.

What happened next was a chain reaction that led a Tampa company to create an entirely new product line that helped assure no other family of a missionary would have to go through what the man in Ukraine did.

The company is Jet ICU and what it did, aside from flying halfway across the planet to bring the missionary home, was use the experience to create an insurance product solely dedicated to protecting missionaries working overseas.

The policy has become a core component of Jet ICU’s business. It’s helped transform the company and, in the process, bring home hundreds of missionaries from throughout the world. It's also helped the company grow into a business with 75 employees and a fleet of six planes, including three Learjet 60s. Officials declined to disclose annual revenue figures. 

Beyond missionaries, Jet ICU has brought home a University of South Florida student badly injured in a car wreck in Cuba; a man paralyzed because of complications from COVID-19; and reunited parents whose twins were born prematurely to a surrogate and were trapped in Utah because of travel restrictions.

“Every time a plane takes off,” company founder Mike Honeycutt, 51, says, “it touches a life.”

Fly high

The insurance line is simply called Missionary Travel Association.

It's an insurance policy developed with the help of Lloyd’s of London. In addition to the normal coverages one gets when buying travel insurance, this policy allows for the medical extraction of missionaries who’ve gotten sick or injured in a foreign land and desperately need medical care.

It came to be in 2009.

Honeycutt had been traveling worldwide for years and had seen his fair share of people struggling, including the man he’d just helped get out of Ukraine.

He approached his father, Bill Honeycutt, about what they could do to help missionaries caring for others in far corners of the world who faced astronomical bills just to get home when they got sick or hurt.

Usually, churches and mission groups were left to raise the money to cover the cost – an international air ambulance flight can cost anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000.

“I said to my dad, the missionaries who are out there giving to the world don’t have Blue Cross Blue Shield or Aetna in Togo or Ghana or wherever they are,” Mike Honeycutt says. “So, we said they really need a program built for them, a medical extraction program.”

The pair went to Lloyd’s of London, the global insurance company, to work with a broker Mike Honeycutt knew.

It took about a year and a half to create the policy.

Bill Honeycutt, 82, says one of the hardest things about selling it at the beginning was convincing churches that his product was more than just basic travel insurance, which covers cancelled flights, lost luggage and other mishaps.

The problem, he says, was that the churches wanted that kind of coverage in addition to coverage for extractions.So they went back to work and added those elements.

Missionary Travel is currently insuring people on six continents.

To help service the policies, Jet ICU then created Centurion Travel Assistance. CTA  steps in when a Missionary Travel policy holder has an issue and handles the logistics to get a Jet ICU plane to where it needs to be.

Take off

Mike Honeycutt, who founded the air ambulance company in 2003, says creating the insurance policy has helped the original company expand by giving churches a place to turn to when their missionaries have problems.

Along with missionaries, Jet ICU has contracts with major cruise lines and has worked with corporations and governments. It also operates a  second insurance company, the Florida Snowbird Association, as well as a nonprofit.

The company currently works out of an office building on Westshore Boulevard and keeps its fleet in hangars at Tampa International Airport. And it's in the early stages of building a new $4 million, 30,000-square-foot headquarters at the airport that will bring the entire company together and help with future growth.

And Honeycutt expects to see growth.

The air ambulance industry is a $4.4 billion business expected to grow to $8.7 billion by 2027, according to a December report from corporate research firm Fortune Business Insights.

The industry got its start in 1972 with the first hospital-based helicopter service. Today, there are about 500,000 aircraft acting as air-ambulances.

There are two different types of air ambulance services.

Most people only think of air ambulances as the helicopters that swoop down at accident sites on the interstate.

But companies like Jet ICU provide long distance services, sending airplanes fashioned into makeshift hospital rooms and staffed with medical personnel to pick up patients who are stuck far from home without access to quality health care. They also pick people up in the U.S. who are too sick to travel commercially.

'Every time a plane takes off, it touches a life.' Mike Honeycutt

Business wise, the rotary-wing segment is growing fastest, according to a report released last month by the San Francisco-based Grand View Research. The firm found companies flying rotary-wing air ambulances controlled 78.6% of revenue in 2020.

Grand View pegs the market value of the air ambulance industry in 2020 at $5.3 billion and expects it to grow 10% annually between 2021 and 2028.

The need for fixed-wing ambulances is growing, though, largely because those planes can fly in adverse weather and because of medical tourism.

The size of the global fixed-wing air ambulance service market was valued at $977.6 million in 2017 and it’s expected to grow 9.4% annually, according to Grand View.

Up in the air

When the new building is complete, Jet ICU will have all its operations under a single roof, which will make no one happier than Honeycutt, who does not like being far from his planes.

See, while Honeycutt is a corporate executive running a multimillion-dollar company, he is also a pilot. And he rather be flying than sitting in a boardroom.

“When I’m up there,” he says, “they know not to call me unless there’s an emergency. A real emergency.”

While his corporate duties keep him busy, Honeycutt still flies missions on a regular basis, clocking about 600 hours per year. 

For Honeycutt, what the company does is as much a mission as it is a business and flying is a way to live out the core values of the company — helping people.

Before starting Jet ICU, Honeycutt was a medevac pilot flying fixed wing airplanes. He started in 1995 working for a Clearwater air ambulance company that’s no longer around.

In 1998, he went to work for Midway Airlines but came back to the air ambulance business after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

A couple years later, he started Jet ICU.

“I like to say I built the company from the cockpit backwards,” Honeycutt says.

The company offers a service he describes as “bedside to bedside from anywhere in the world.”

And when he says anywhere, he means anywhere. The company, since its inception, has flown to 169 countries.

He tells a story about picking up a surgeon who taught at the University of Michigan. The man got ill and was stuck in Lomé, the capital of the West African nation of Togo.

When medical providers brought him out to the plane, “they had what looked like a cross between a Pepsi bottle and old milk bottle, hung upside down with a coat hanger, and a rubber nipple on it with a tube coming out of it,” Honeycutt says.

“That was his IV.”

The surgeon kept it as a souvenir.

Come fly away

As for the missionary in Ukraine who unknowingly got the ball rolling, he wound up being OK. And that surprised Honeycutt, who didn't think the man would live.

Jet ICU picked him up in Ukraine and flew to Ireland for refueling.  They were two hours into the flight out of Ireland, over the North Atlantic, when the nurse called up to the cockpit.

They needed to turn around, they were losing the patient.

“I like to say I built the company from the cockpit backwards."

Back in Ireland, Honeycutt and some of the doctors didn’t think the hospitalized missionary was going to make it. And for a while it was touch-and-go.

Even when the man began to recover, there was no guarantee he wouldn't regress.

But the man survived and Jet ICU flew him home.

And his family was stuck with a bill for about $180,000.

“That’s how it started,” Bill Honeycutt says. “MTA was born from that.”





Latest News


Special Offer: Only $1 Per Week For 1 Year!

Your free article limit has been reached this month.
Subscribe now for unlimited digital access to our award-winning business news.
Join thousands of executives who rely on us for insights spanning Tampa Bay to Naples.