Like it or not, executives at a certain Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer will have to fend off innumerable questions at the forthcoming Heli-Expo convention about which company precisely it is they work for.
The answer until recently, of course, would have been AgustaWestland. But following an announcement late last year, the division has now been rebranded as Finmeccanica Helicopters, as part of its parent’s “one company” initiative.
To add to the complexity, the division – which also incorporates Polish manufacturer PZL Swidnik – is retaining the individual brand and model identities for its rotorcraft range. So Finmeccanica Helicopters still produces the AgustaWestland AW189, for example.
Confused? Prepare for more change, with Finmeccanica set to undergo a further rebrand in the summer. Meanwhile, there is at least one element of consistency; Daniele Romiti, who has been in charge of AgustaWestland since 2013, remains chief executive, albeit now of Finmeccanica Helicopters.
Romiti, as one might expect, toes the party line in regards to the name change: “I think we will get more traction in the worldwide market if we are perceived as a single company.”
That remains to be seen of course, but in the meantime, he has to deal with a global rotorcraft market that appears considerably less rosy than it did this time last year. Much attention has been focused on the oil and gas segment where sales, particularly for heavy helicopters, have flatlined. For example, Airbus Helicopters took in orders for just two H225s in 2015.
However, Romiti is perhaps less concerned with that part of the market than his rivals are, even, to some extent viewing it as an opportunity. Offshore transportation still represents 15-16% of its global business by value, he says, but Finmeccanica has no presence in the heavy market.
He believes the strategy of oil and gas operators will be to cut costs. “I’m pretty sure on that – it is a normal reaction in a time of crisis. Our proposition is facilitating this approach,” he says.
What he means is that Finmeccanica’s 8.3t AW189, which entered service in 2014, can offer a better, more cost-effective means of transporting passengers than the typical 19-seater, particularly if maximum range and payload are not considerations.
“It’s well-known, it is not a secret. The AW189 can operate at the same range, albeit with fewer passengers. Think about the value proposition.
“In our view this cost-cutting approach we are expecting globally is something that should be providing us with an opportunity,” he says.
“Our competitors, especially the ones eating Camembert, have new products, that’s true, but ours are already on the market in operation.”
That last comment is in reference to the H160 medium twin being developed by Airbus Helicopters and not due to enter service until 2018. But in the short term, the AW189 faces stiffer competition from the same manufacturer’s 7.5t H175.
However, Romiti is dismissive of the direct commercial challenge posed by the latter, despite strong bookings in 2015. “It doesn’t match the AW189, which is superior in terms of weight, range and payload. [The H175] is in between our AW139 and AW189,” he says.
Where the AW189 has suffered, however, is the lack of certification for the full icing protection system (FIPS). Although it obtained approval for a less comprehensive system last year, testing of FIPS is still ongoing, using a prototype AW189 most recently deployed to Alaska.
Nonetheless, Romiti is confident EASA certification will be achieved by June. “We are now in the final part of the test campaign. The helicopter is performing very well, we are pretty happy with the performance. It is more about the weather – it is too warm.”
Final assembly of the AW189 is presently confined to its Vergiate factory in northern Italy, but from late 2017, a second line will open at the Tomilino, Moscow facility of its HeliVert three-way venture. That will operate in parallel with the site’s AW139 production, and is part of a tentative 2014 commitment from RN-Aircraft, a subsidiary of oil giant Rosneft, for as many as 160 examples of the super-medium in the period to 2025.
That same deal saw Rosneft taking a 30% stake in the business, formerly a 50-50 tie-up with Russian Helicopters. Rosneft will acquire 20% of the company from the latter, with the remaining 10% relinquished by Finmeccanica.
So far, just 10 firm orders have been placed from the pact, with the first of two helicopters undergoing acceptance trials in Vergiate.
“As soon as deliveries start, that will allow us to set the line up pretty shortly afterwards,” says Romiti. “It is much dependant on the localisation of some activities, but it should be around the end of next year.”
Meanwhile, ramp-up is under way on the AW169, following type certification of the 4.6t helicopter in July.
This too will be assembled at two production lines: one in Vergiate and the other in Philadelphia. So far only the Italian facility is up and running, although Romiti says the first AW169 should roll off the US line by end-2016, following US Federal Aviation Administration approval around mid-year.
“Until then I am more than happy to have Italy starting to build up,” he says.
Sales of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210-powered medium twin remain robust, with a backlog of around 150 units. And, says Romiti, initial customer feedback has been positive.
“The first customers that took away the machine are very enthusiastic and delighted by the performance, it is conforming to expectations,” he says.
AgustaWestland’s only outstanding clean-sheet development programme, the AW609 civil tiltrotor, remains under a cloud, however, following a late-October fatal crash of the second flight-test prototype. Italian air accident investigators have yet to release their initial findings on the accident and Romiti declines to comment on the inquiry.
However, in the aftermath of the incident, in which two test pilots lost their lives, he has repeatedly reaffirmed the company’s commitment to the tiltrotor. In addition, the United Arab Emirates’ Joint Aviation Command tentatively ordered three examples for search and rescue missions, at the Dubai air show.
“What happened was not predictable – you do not think about such kinds of events happening, but it is not unheard of in aviation programmes,” he says.
Assembly work on the third prototype is ongoing with the hope that it can make its first flight at some point in the first half of 2016, he says, while stressing the manufacturer will be “respectful” of the investigation.
“It is going to be in a phase which is very important for the preparation of the production line,” he adds.
As for 2016 though, Romiti shies away from offering a detailed forecast. He is confident sales will be around the same level as in 2015, but, given the state of the global economy, there is little clarity beyond that.
“It is hard to see what will be in 2016, but it will be challenging for sure,” he says.