As the global helicopter industry emerges from one of the worst recessions in recent years, manufacturers are launching new machines and technologies and aggressively targeting their products at burgeoning markets, including offshore, news gathering and emergency medical services operations, in an effort to boost their order books. Manufacturers are also heavily marketing their helicopters at company flight departments and corporate operators, and they are now beginning to witness an increase in demand for these machines.
"People are realising more than ever the value that a helicopter can bring to their business. This has become more apparent since Western economies have picked up," says Roy Resavage president of the US-based Helicopter Association International (HAI) which represents the interests of about 2,800 members round the world. According to Aastad, publisher of the Chadds Fords, Pennsylvania-based Helicopter Market Letter, sales of new civil turbine helicopters have risen steadily over the past four years.
Last year was a "great year", with a total of 143 new aircraft deliveries in the USA alone, compared with 133 in 1996. The market share for new corporate aircraft in the USA also increased during the same period, from 20% to 26%. "Manufacturers are strengthened by the upturn in the market and are optimistic that this trend will continue," adds Resavage.
Jeffrey Pino, Bell Helicopter Textron's director of marketing, agrees with this view. "We expect the worldwide market for corporate helicopters to increase. Although growth in the mature markets such as Europe and North America is expected to remain constant, we see enormous potential in areas like Latin America and the Far East," he says. The corporate market represents around 35% of Bell's total deliveries. "Sales of corporate helicopters reached its peak [for Bell] in 1996 when we introduced the Model 407 - a single twin with corporate capabilities - the aircraft then accounted for 42% of our total sales," Pinto says.
To date, the Canadian manufacturer has delivered around 300 Model 407s, from its commercial helicopter plant in Mirabel, with around 35% of these in corporate configuration. "The corporate market also accounts for nearly one-third of JetRanger and LongRanger sales and about 10% of Model 212 and 412 sales," adds Pino. Bell is enthusiastic about the introduction of its new $2 million Model 427 light twin in 1999, for which it has already received about 80 orders. "Once this helicopter is introduced, Bell expects to sweep up about 50% of the light twin market," asserts Pino.
Bell's 609 Tiltrotor, which is scheduled to enter service in 2002, is widely acclaimed by the manufacturer and operators alike. "The 609 combines the benefits of a helicopter with the range and speed of similar-sized turboprops [Raytheon Beech King Air, for example]" says Don Barbour, Bell's executive director of civil tiltrotors. The company has already received 67 orders for the nine-seat aircraft and foresees a demand for about 1,000 aircraft over 20 years. "The corporate market is very important to us and will represent around one third of our total sales," adds Barbour.
Before deciding to sell its entire former McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems product line, Boeing claims to have pursued the corporate market vigorously. "The corporate sector is growing. It is becoming more apparent that if a company wants to move its executives around a large metropolitan area, an out-of-town or remote location quickly and effectively you need a helicopter," says Boeing. The Mesa, Arizona-based manufacturer offers the MD500 and MD600 light single series, and the MD902 light twin in corporate configuration.
Boeing delivered 30 aircraft of all variants during 1997, although it declines to disclose total corporate sales. Meanwhile, Sikorsky delivered 18 new S-76s last year, for which about half were sold to corporate operators, and plans to deliver 20 S-76s this year. Agusta also anticipates an increase in sales of its A109 Power during 1998. The Italian helicopter manufacturer says that "-the corporate market is very important for us and we expect substantial sales within this sector."
Eurocopter delivered 210 helicopters in 1997, with around 12% of these in corporate configuration. The Franco-German consortium expects to snap up further corporate orders following the introduction of its EC135 light twin, regarded as one of the quietest aircraft in production, and for which its has received about 120 orders to date.
The industry believes that the growing concerns over aircraft noise and public safety are two prominent factors affecting the future growth of the helicopter industry as a whole. Manufacturers have responded and are now introducing technology to "greatly reduce helicopter noise".
Eurocopter concedes that the tail rotor designs of its EC135 and the NOTAR system on the Boeing models has gone a long way to address this problem. Jan Willem Stuurman, chief executive of the European Helicopter Association (EHA) maintains, however, that manufacturers are now constantly trying to find ways to upgrade technology while keeping the cost of the machine as low as possible.
"There is a constant battle to juggle increased capability and price," he says. According to Bell's Barbour, "-customers will buy what they care about at a price they are willing to pay. We try to satisfy the the broad range of customers, and on the whole, expensive and quiet does not sell as well."
EHA believes that both the noise and safety concerns are placing a strain on the corporate helicopter industry in Europe. It maintains that operations are being curtailed by some national aviation authorities who are denying operators the freedom to fly within the European Union (EU), particularly across national borders, and also by the EU's inadequate number of landing sites. "There is little doubt that corporate helicopters can increase the efficiency of business links and the movement of people within Europe. Expansion in the use of helicopters for this role is hindered, however, by the absence of a suitable infrastructure and operating sites within the EU," says Stuurman.
The Amsterdam-based association reveals that annual helicopter movements in Paris have declined from 55,000 to 22,000 in 30 years. Furthermore, in the UK, London is "struggling" to gain a second "much needed" heliport to add to the one in Battersea, which now accommodates 9,000 movements a year.
EHA also fears that the implementation of the Joint Aviation Authorities JAR OPS 3 in April 1999 (whereby all helicopter operations will be forced to comply with the same requirements across the EU) may lead to unnecessary restrictions on helicopter operations. "We are a great supporter of standardised regulation, but we have to be aware of over-regulation, which restricts the flexibility and drives up the costs of helicopters certification and helicopter operations," it says.
The association believes that there should be a balance between noise, safety, and economics, given that the majority of the 4,000 helicopters that are registered in the EU are "older types". "The introduction of realistic noise certification and improved design methods and technologies will ensure that new helicopters are quieter. However, the existing fleet of helicopters will continue to operate for some time," it adds. Operators are being urged to adopt HAI's "Fly Neighbourly" programme, which urges pilots to avoid flight at low altitudes, particularly over noise-sensitive areas, and to follow routes which will "minimise noise impact."
In the USA the growing concerns over helicopter noise and safety has also led to airspace restrictions, particularly over national parks, including the Grand Canyon, and has led to the closure of some publicly owned heliports and landing sites.
According to HAI the total number of helipads accessible to the public in the USA has fallen from 214 in 1989 to 183 in 1998. The association maintains that in the past year one out of four New York-based heliports, which account for a combined total 150,000 of annual operations, has closed down, while the future of one other landing site is in doubt.
"If heliports continue to close, this will have a chilling effect on the industry - helicopters will be forced to land at airports, and will then lose their attraction for a prospective corporate user," says Resavage.
Both Resavage and Stuurman concede that the poor public image of helicopters is restricting their use in corporate and public transport. "If the helicopter does not gain public acceptance, there is little prospect of achieving provision for the necessary infrastructure which will allow for an expansion in the use helicopters," says Stuurman.
The increasing popularity of helicopters as a corporate tool has prompted the majority of manufacturers to explore fractional ownership possibilities in the hope of emulating the success of the existing business aircraft programmes. Eurocopter, Sikorsky and Bell are openly holding "discussions" with unnamed operators, one of which is believed to be the UK's First Heli Network (FHN), which is scheduled to take delivery of its first two JetRangers by the end of the year, along with an order for a Model 427 and 430.
"Fractional ownership offers all the proven benefits of modern helicopters without the burden of ownership," says the FHN's group managing director Tony Easton. "The programme operates like any other. However, for obvious logistical reasons, we cannot offer guaranteed availability," he adds. The Osmington Mills, Dorset, UK-based company, which has already signed up 16 customers, expects corporate helicopter use to increase at a "staggering rate" as people begin to realise their potential.
FHN recently conducted a survey to examine travelling habits of 34 top executives. It revealed that the executives spent a combined total of about 34 months a year travelling by rail, road and/or train. "The research found that by using a helicopter these executives would save a [combined] total of 13 months a year [in transit]," says Easton.
The company is planning to set up strategic alliances with two or three operators in some chosen countries. "We will franchise FHN around the world and plan to have about 10 companies in place by 2000," adds Easton. FHN also plans to operate a fleet of 24 aircraft in 36 months which will also include the Agusta A109 Power and Bell 407. It plans to add the 609 tiltrotor to its fleet when its enters service.
"The 609 will become an integral part of our programme - it will transform the corporate helicopter market in the next century," concedes Easton.
Source: Flight International