Quite often airplanes flying over the Atlantic have to make unscheduled stops in the Azores, usually at Santa Maria (LPAZ/SMA) or Lajes (LPLA/TER). The reason is always pretty much the same: medical emergency.
Both Santa Maria and Lajes have runways more then 3000 meters long, are ILS equipped and have the required material and fire response category to deal with these unexpected visitors. If the reason was any other then medical I would most definitely fly into any one of these airfields – primarily to Lajes – assured that I wouldn’t be left down by the airport capacity itself. But when it comes to passengers/crew members in distress in mid flight, it’s my honest belief that Lajes, and especially Santa Maria, should only be an option if the aircraft couldn’t comfortably land at Ponta Delgada (LPPD/PDL). Ponta Delgada has a 2500 meters runway and is located just 2 km from the best equipped hospital in all 9 islands. While Terceira island, where Lajes is located, has a hospital some 15 km away from the airport, the resources to deal with most problems that may struck people in-flight, and also the ability to transport passengers to Ponta Delgada, Santa Maria doesn’t even have a proper hospital. Sick people who have the bad luck of ending up at Santa Maria are bound for some possibly deadly waiting as it has happened before, because an aircraft has to be flown in from Lajes, pick up the passenger and take him to Ponta Delgada. This takes time. Maybe too much time!
Airplanes like the Boeing 767 or 777-200 are more than able to land at Ponta Delgada, and because the planes that divert into the Azores are usually already halfway on their oceanic crossing, take-off with enough fuel for their destination isn’t a problem.
I just wonder why Ponta Delgada isn’t chosen as the primary airfield in case of medical related emergencies…
Feel free to comment in English or in Portuguese.