Growth in Australia’s once-booming helicopter sector is slowing down at a time when the industry is grappling with a series of obstacles.

Over the past decade, the Australian helicopter sector has grown by 6-8% a year – at least twice the rate of the nation’s GDP and three to four times faster than the general aviation sector, according to Rob Rich, secretary of the Australian Helicopter Industry Association, which was established two years ago to represent the growing sector.

In 1997, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority register listed 650 helicopters. Today, there are 2,110, comprising 1,314 single-engine piston helicopters (63% of the total fleet), 554 single-engine turbines (26%) and 242 multi-engine helicopters (11%). The majority of the fleet (767) is based in Queensland, followed by New South Wales (437), Western Australia (341), Victoria (271), the Northern Territory (192), South Australia (48), Tasmania (46) and the Australian Capital Territory (eight), with the fleet employed in roles and industries ranging from mustering, resources, tourism, executive transport, medical emergency and rescue.

In fiscal 2013/14, helicopter registrations increased by 153 aircraft from 1,951 to 2,104 or 7.8%, which was a “good result”, says Rich. “However, the AHIA is concerned at the slump of growth during the first six months of the current fiscal year – July to December,” he points out. During this period, the fleet has only grown by six helicopters.

“Some industry observers claim the falling dollar, drought in Northern Australia and uncertainty about the final regulatory restructure by CASA may be the culprits,” says Rich.

Last year was “one of the most frustrating and confusing years in the history of the [Australian] aviation industry”, he says. “It was almost like a bad weather event when several damaging atmospheric forces collide, causing widespread chaos.”

In the case of the helicopter sector, this involved “widespread misunderstandings between the regulator [CASA] and industry, frustrated by increased costs, complexity of new rules, non-conformity within the ranks of the regulator and lack of communication regarding proposed changes”.

The year saw significant changes at CASA, with the resignation of director of aviation safety John McCormick at the beginning of the year, departing at the end of August, and a lengthy search for his replacement. His successor, retired Air Vice Marshal Mark Skidmore, was named in October and finally took over the reins in January.

In the meantime, the Aviation Safety Regulation Review, commonly known as the Forsyth Review was published. Following years of growing animosity between the local industry and the regulator and concerns over the regulatory reform process, in November 2013 the Australian government launched the independent review of Australia’s aviation safety regulatory system. The report was issued in May 2014, making 37 recommendations and criticising CASA’s “hard-line” approach. It states: “The current relationship between industry and the regulator is cause for concern. In recent years, the regulator has adopted an across the board hard-line philosophy, which in the Panel’s view, is not appropriate for an advanced aviation nation such as Australia. As a result, relationships between industry and CASA have, in many cases, become adversarial.”

The report also criticised the regulatory reform programme – which “has been ongoing for over two decades and has changed direction several times”, resulting in “widespread ‘reform fatigue’ within the industry”.

Australian helicopter operators are facing a “tsunami of new rules”, explains Rich, which are often completely different from previous versions in both content and language, “supposedly to align with International Civil Aviation Organisation procedures”, although the result is often regulations that are “overly complicated, verbose legalese and in some cases far from clear intent”. Rich says: “Operators are angry that workers at the ‘coal face’ have to try and understand thousands of pages of difficult-to-understand rules. All major aviation associations are promoting the simple and plain English legislation used by New Zealand.”

Rich says a number regulatory issues are causing high workloads for commercial helicopter operators, including new rules concerning fatigue management for flight crew, which came into effect in April 2013 and which operators have until 30 April 2016 to implement.

Integrated and multi-crew pilot flight training and contracted recurrent training and checking (Part 142) rules are also causing problems. Rich says they are a set of complex rules providing structured flight training activities that lead to the issue of multi-crew licences and integrated courses for the issue of a private or commercial pilot licence.

The AHIA is also concerned about the Australian Air Transport Operators – Rotorcraft (Part 133) rules. Rich says that in October 2014, Europe switched to similar “restrictive rules” introducing a single standard when using helicopters for passenger-carrying air transport operations. “Pushing the helicopter industry up into the compliance levels used by airlines has resulted in much angst,” says Rich, adding that amended multi-engine performance standards under development in Australia are causing “considerable debate”.

Aerial Work Operations – Rotorcraft (Part 138) rules are also causing concern, especially in aircrew licensing matters, he says.

The AHIA has been particularly vocal in its criticisms of new Flight Crew Licensing (Part 61) requirements, which it believes include complex requirements for flying schools that it expects will have a negative effect on that sector, says Rich. “Current trends show a retraction in the training market – fewer students – as industry awaits the final rewrite of CASR Part 61 [instrument and manual of standards],” he says, predicting the number of helicopter flying schools could drop from 30 to below 20. The AHIA last year called on the government to delay the planned September 2014 implementation of Part 61, believing the regulations would add further costs to industry, are too complex, offer no perceived safety benefits and could adversely impact the helicopter industry. Despite concerns, Part 61 became effective on 1 September, with a four-year transition period.

The AHIA was established precisely to give the sector a voice when it comes to issues such as regulatory changes. The sector had been without a representative body since the demise of the Helicopter Association of Australasia in 2007 during the global financial crisis. “Since then, continuing steady growth and increasing pressure from the regulator introducing more complex, costly and poorly understood Civil Aviation Safety Regulations aligned with European protocols has resulted in a very concerned industry wanting better representation,” says Rich.

The association currently has 100-plus corporate members and a similar number of individual members.

When it was established, Rich says the steering committee of the AHIA “carefully investigated the needs of our industry which had undergone steady growth over several decades. It was obvious the industry was misjudging some of the goalposts looming across the horizon. The need for more multi-engine IFR crews and highly qualified maintenance technicians was often debated, but little action was taken.” The AHIA set to work straight away with the formation of numerous working groups to provide feedback to the regulator on proposed regulatory changes. It also worked to get the industry together to address its issues, including re-establishing the Rotortech conference and exhibition, held in May 2014 on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. It is also working with international bodies, such as the US-based Helicopter Association International, on international issues.

The AHIA has teamed up with other sectors of the country’s aviation industry in an effort to tackle issues facing it. It is a member of the Australian Aviation Associations’ Forum, for example, which met in November 2014 to discuss a range of “urgent aviation issues”.

The TAAAF complained that the Australian government had only delivered about 40% of its 12 key aviation election commitments. Of particular concern, was a perceived “lack of drive and commitment to act urgently on aviation”, including its failure at that time to respond to the Forsyth Review.

The TAAAF also called on the government to establish a moratorium on all CASA regulatory development work until the new CASA chief was fully operational, the board had been appointed and it had made a clear response to the Forsyth report. The forum said of particular concern was the new Part 61 regulations that “should immediately be suspended to prevent further damage to the industry”. Part 61 is not acceptable to the industry in its current form and is a threat to the viability of some sectors of the industry, it said. A joint industry/CASA taskforce should be appointed to apply the principles of “sound regulatory development”, it says.

The government finally tabled its response to the Forsyth Review in December and said it has fully agreed to, or agreed to undertake a more detailed examination of, 36 of the report’s 37 recommendations – rejecting one proposing the Australian Transport Safety Bureau pass its safety education function to CASA. The government has also expanded the CASA board and appointed new board members, as well as the new CASA director of aviation safety.

AHIA at Avalon

The AHIA is aiming for a significant helicopter presence at this year’s Australian International Airshow, which will take place at Avalon Airport, Victoria, from 27 February-1 March.

The AHIA will run a technical conference at the show, with presentations from Airservices Australia, CASA on regulatory changes affecting the sector, AHIA working groups and companies including Australian coaxial helicopter design company Coax Helicopters.

Local operators will be able to display their helicopters at no cost during the show in an AHIA heli-park.

Source: Flight International