Air ambulance charities believe the NHS is ready to recognise the role they could play in improving emergency care - and that funding for improved services could be on the cards.

Association of Air Ambulance Charities chair David Philpott believes the NHS will eventually agree to fund specialist 'pre-hospital care' doctors to stabilise and treat patients at the site of an incident and in the air.

Currently, paramedics who fly with air ambulances are seconded from the NHS but all other costs of English air ambulances are met by charitable fundraising.

The Department of Health has denied there are any plans to extend funding.

But Mr Philpott - who is also chief executive of the Kent Air Ambulance Trust charity - said there is increasing interest from primary care trusts in an enhanced role for the ambulances.

'We are quietly confident that the argument is moving in our favour,' he said. He has been approached by senior PCT figures to discuss possibilities and also by a trust interested in building a helipad.

The national clinical director for emergency access Professor Sir George Alberti has met air ambulance leaders to discuss clinical governance issues and has discussed an enhanced role for air ambulances - possibly to help access 'spare' intensive care beds around the country.

If air ambulances did become involved in patient transfers at night they would require lit helipads to operate between hospitals.

Mr Philpott said many PCTs were concerned about how quickly patients could be given emergency care if a significant number of accident and emergency units closed. 'I think this is the background to why the penny has finally dropped,' he said.

Opponents of A&E closures have been highlighting journey times as a major potential flaw in reconfiguration programmes. Air ambulances could be one way of ensuring trauma, medical and obstetric emergencies get appropriate care more quickly - both by starting treatment in the air and by ensuring patients get to specialist units as soon as possible.