Folks attending the Helicopter Association International's Heli Expo show in Texas last week were generally upbeat about their industry, despite the negative effects on some sectors of the Asian economic downturn and low oil prices.

Outside the doors of the Dallas convention centre, however, the view was less than rose-coloured. Public acceptance of helicopters is low and falling, and the industry is becoming seriously worried. And so, with AlliedSignal and Rolls-Royce predicting continued strong sales of commercial helicopters, industry watchers were forced to sound alarms about the challenges ahead.

There have been challenges before, among them the US Department of Defense's decision to dispose of hundreds of surplus military operators and Europe's safety-inspired move to limit the use of single-engined helicopters. The Pentagon's largesse is now viewed as having benefited the industry, the availability of cheap helicopters having created many new police aviation units and so expanded the customer base for new law enforcement machines.

Europe, meanwhile, has been persuaded to relax its restrictions on single-engined helicopters, at least until their safety can be assessed scientifically. The latest challenge is unlikely to be overcome as easily, not least because it comes from outside the industry. Surplus helicopters and safety statistics are concerns which involve agencies that are intimately familiar with aviation issues. The acceptability of helicopter noise is an issue which involves the public and politicians - two groups not easily swayed by logical argument.

For people living near heliports, tourists seeking natural quiet in national parks and environmentalists wanting to protect first-growth forests, the helicopter's versatility counts for naught. That helicopters can whisk accident victims to hospital, help fight crime, or fires in those same forests, is of little consequence. The machines are simply noisy menaces.

For politicians, opposing helicopter flights over cities and in parks and forests is a potential vote-winner, although helicopters help save lives, fight crime and create jobs.

Public acceptance is all the more challenging because it is not one big battle, but many small skirmishes in a war that could cost many helicopter operators their livelihoods. At Heli Expo, it was revealed that a bill has been proposed to the US Congress that, if passed, would give any community with more than 500,000 people the power to control helicopter operations over their cities. The bill is unlikely to succeed, but only last year Congress passed legislation imposing limits on helicopter tours over US national parks.

More attempts to restrict helicopter operations are expected, both in the USA and elsewhere.

The growing power of the environmental lobby is one reason, and one that is not restricted in its impact on the helicopter industry. Environmental issues are probably the greatest challenge facing the whole aviation industry, as seen in the dispute between Europe and the USA over hushkitted airliners.

But the helicopter industry is small and fragmented, and not well practiced at uniting to tackle the big issues. The industry has only just gained representation at the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the rule-making body for the worldwide civil aviation community.

The war over public acceptance is too big to be left to local forces to fight alone. The air transport industry is fighting the proliferation of local airport noise and emissions regulations by urging the ICAO to quickly draw up tougher standards that can be applied equally and fairly worldwide. In the same way the helicopter industry must mobilise to seek international standards for rotorcraft operations that respond to the public's concerns - before myriad local rules spring up that will hamstring the sector's opportunity for growth.

A lack of infrastructure that allows operators to exploit the helicopter's unique capabilities is already a major damper on the rotorcraft industry's growth. It will not get easier, despite developments that make helicopters quieter and rotorcraft more versatile. In the next millennium, the public will become more vocal in its demands - and the industry needs an answer.

Source: Flight International