The helicopter industry cannot complain about the lack of heliports while it fails to get influential user groups into the lobby alongside it

Private helicopter operators have long been beleaguered by unpredictable conditions because the operation of lighter commercial helicopters is restricted by weather and visibility. As a result, helicopter transportation has not met its potential in Europe, where customers have not found them sufficiently reliable.

As the various stumbling blocks on the way to all-weather, instrument-guided helicopters are cleared, demand should rise dramatically. However, there may be nowhere to land.

As the example of Cannes shows, even where there are ideal conditions for helicopter charters - rain-free days and numerous clients - vociferous protest from residents, complaining about noise, has persuaded the town's authorities to examine the continued existence of one of its heliports.

Noise complaints are nothing new to the aviation industry in Europe; every airport expansion and upgrade faces opposition from those with homes nearby, or under the approach path. Many of these people enjoy access to an international gateway, but prefer it to be "Not In My Back Yard".

This NIMBYism has delayed badly needed airport development in the south-east of the UK. Similarly, Germany has consistently tightened its restrictions on aircraft approaching Zurich airport in neighbouring Switzerland. Europe is not alone, as recent attempts to ban business jets from various US airports will testify.

Yet airlines, and even business aviation associations have, to a greater or lesser extent, been able to hold their own against the anti-noise lobby. Airport operators and airlines lobby governments at every level to ensure planners hear a balanced argument. In the USA, the National Business Aviation Association led the successful legal challenge to Naples airport in Florida, which has placed a unilateral ban on aircraft it considered too noisy.

Helicopter operators, however, have yet to mobilise. Despite claims to the contrary, most helicopter users in Europe tend to be "high net-worth individuals", in industry parlance.

Not only do the rich make an easy target for local politicians, but they do not often band together to protest against such matters. The result is over-stretched heliports in Europe's major cities and the closure of other ones. If Cannes fails to find an alternative site for its heliport before next March's closure of the existing one, it would be the twelfth such closure along the Côte d'Azur in 15 years.

One effect of this has been a significant increase in tariffs. A scheduled service runs between Nice and Monaco at prices below that of a taxi. Similar services used to run to St Tropez, a popular convention town, before NIMBYism claimed its municipal heliport. Now only privately chartered helicopters ply the route, landing on private fields at vast expense.

Scheduled services in Europe are restricted to such minor links. However, where they do exist, such as between Málaga in southern Spain and the north African enclave of Ceuta, or between the Finnish capital Helsinki and nearby Estonian capital Tallinn, prices rapidly fall. But the lack of heliports has hampered the growth of such services.

This is in contrast to other parts of the world. In New York, where several heliports were closed due to security fears, rotorcraft are still busy. In S‹o Paulo, Brazil, more than 450 helicopters whisk executives from rooftop to rooftop, and there are hop-on hop-off airborne bus services between major sites. Poor road traffic conditions have prompted this growth, but a pro-helicopter city government has fostered it.

The take-up rate is still low in London, Paris and Madrid, however, as each city is badly served by heliports. Plans to build new landing sites closer to the commercial centres have been thwarted by residents time and time again. National helicopter associations say business support does not necessarily result in active lobbying and other forms of pressure. Consequently, valuable scheduled shuttles between city centres and airports do not exist.

It is a virtuous circle: more heliports will lead to more demand, which will lead to scheduled services, which will reduce fares, which in turn will require additional sites.

Before this can happen, customers need to feel they can rely on helicopter schedules at all times. The major equipment manufacturers are all working to bring the same all-weather operations to rotorcraft as have existed for fixed-wing aircraft for years. Satellite navigation systems should play a major part in enabling this. These innovations are not far off, but the industry and, more importantly, the users, have to prepare a strong case for heliport expansion if it is to benefit from them.

Source: Flight International