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The corporate helicopter market in Canada is larger than it first appeared, and is poised to get even bigger.


July 13, 2007
By David Carr

Topics

The Canadian Business Aviation Association (CBAA) convention and trade
show has traditionally been a platform for fixed-wing manufacturers to
showcase their newest, fastest and largest corporate airplanes. So has
the first-time arrival of Eurocopter to CBAA, and the return of Bell
Helicopters after a four-year absence, signaled a shift in thinking
over the role of the helicopter as a corporate business tool in Canada?

Tony
Brown, vice-president of sales and customer support for Fort Erie,
Ontario-based Eurocopter Canada, says yes. "There is untapped potential
in the Canadian marketplace that advances in helicopter technology is
only just starting to open up." He points to the EC 155 with de-icing,
and a cockpit suite of flight control and autopilot systems on a par
with the most sophisticated corporate jets. Ironically, it is broader
acceptance of the business jet as a way to sidestep airport congestion
and deteriorating airline service that has pushed helicopters further
into the corporate spotlight.

The helicopter remains the only
piece of technology that can add value to the corporate jet by
leapfrogging over the final layer of ground congestion between the
airport, office, the home or even the family cottage on weekends. "The
person who spends money on a Global Express to fly into his corporate
base from Europe does not want to waste another four hours driving from
the airport to get home or back to the office. He wants to get there in
less than 30 minutes," said Dennis Lacroix, director of marketing for
Bell Helicopter Textron Canada. As major cities make themselves more
accessible to helicopters, demand is certain to accelerate.

For
manufacturers, the corporate market in Canada represents a
contradiction of sorts. While small in size – a wafer-thin four percent
of registered helicopters – corporate represents real growth in new
aircraft sales along with private users, EMS and parapublic. Indeed,
over the last five years, it is estimated that the corporate market
snapped up 40 to 50 percent of all new helicopters touching down in
Canada. Small wonder that Bell, Eurocopter and manufacturers such as
Agusta, Robinson and Sikorsky (originator of the executive cabin class
helicopter) will be zeroing in on Canadian corporate users over the
next five years.

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Lacroix suggested that comparative statistics
can be deceiving. "Surprisingly, there are a lot of corporate
helicopters out there. Particularly LongRangers, JetRangers and A
Stars." Lacroix sees one of the biggest sales bumps coming in the
replacement market, especially among the bulk of executives who
typically like to fly their own machine.

"There are corporate
customers who bought a LongRanger in 1980 and are still flying 100 to
200 hours a year," he noted. "It's still nice and does everything the
customer wants, but he is getting older and wants to buy a new one
because it is likely going to be his last one."

Clearly,
helicopters are more than an add-on to the corporate jet. In fact, most
operators do not even own a personal jet, although the operating
profile is similar with those who would use a helicopter to complement
a fixed-wing fleet. The majority of corporate helicopters in Canada,
for example, do not travel far – on average about 20 to 30 minutes, or
the equivalent of two to three hours in a commercial aircraft, all
things considered. "Timewise, there is a radius where transport by car
should not make sense but travel by corporate airplane is not
feasible," explained Brown. "That is where you are seeing the
helicopter beginning to fit."

To make certain the helicopter
does fit manufacturers such as Eurocopter and Bell (including its
partner Bell/Agusta) have a family of aircraft that slot nicely into
all corporate requirements. "Range, budget, twin-engine versus
single-engine, are you taking it up to the cottage for the weekend –
with family or without family? There are a lot of guiding factors that
will influence a customer's decision," Brown said. "You have to have
something for every market."

That is consistent with the basic
market acceptance of single-engine equipment such as the EC 120, A350
and Bell 407, although Bell has made inroads into the corporatetwin
market with its 427 model, and expects to do even better as it rolls
out an IFR version. Lacroix said the biggest selling feature is size,
especially in the replacement market. "That is where I'm seeing the
difference. A lot of these people fly the helicopters themselves, but
it's not just by themselves anymore. They want to fly up to the cottage
with their kids and grandkids.”

As positive as the market
appears, there are obstacles including a lack of heliports in major
urban centres such as Toronto and Montreal. Nothing will slow a
potential flood of corporate orders down to a trickle more than the
knowledge that local flying restrictions and an absence of landing pads
will chip away at the biggest selling point of a helicopter, the
machine's versatility. "There are a lot of corporate customers who can
afford a helicopter but who walk away not because of money, but because
of complications in operating them," Lacroix points out. "If there was
a network of heliports, we would be selling new helicopters by the
dozen."

Brown agreed. "Ideally you would want to see downtown
heliports that are well maintained, licensed and accessible to all. If
we had that in Canada, the growth of corporate helicopters in this
country would be huge."

The debate has a chickenand- egg quality
about it. "You need the heliport to attract the helicopters, but you
need the helicopters before you start to invest in building a
heliport," observed Brian Jenner, president of the Helicopter
Association of Canada (HAC). Further complicating the issue is local
resistance to turning patches of land into local vertical takeoff and
landing points. It is resistance not necessarily rooted in fact. The
Fenestron tail-rotor of the EC 130, for example, is already optimized
for low noise levels in built-up urban centres.

"Technology is
allowing us to develop quieter machines that are even more
urban-friendly," said Brown. "The greater difficulty is perception."
Ideally you'd want to see downtown heliports that are maintained,
licensed and accessible to all. If you had that, the growth of
corporate helicopters in this country would be huge. Certainly the
industry is going to have to do a better job making its case. "There is
a lot you can do to satisfy communities," Lacroix insisted. "Fly
friendly, set up approaches so as not to disturb anybody."

Even
through community awareness, there is evidence to suggest that
perception is living off borrowed time as the air transport market buys
into the versatility of the helicopter in increased numbers. The
tipping point could be the Bell/Agusta BA609 Tiltrotor, the first
helicopter to compete directly on fixed-wing's turf. "The Tiltrotor
will drive the corporate market more than any helicopter that has come
before it," Lacroix predicted. "People are going to say, 'I want a
heliport there, make it happen'."

 


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