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Expanding Horizons

January 12, 2015  By Matt Nicholls

Establishing your brand and rising to a position of influence in a competitive marketplace is challenging indeed and for helicopter manufacturer AgustaWestland (AW), the journey to make its mark in the Canadian marketplace can best be described as a solid work in progress – with definite successes along the way.

Establishing your brand and rising to a position of influence in a competitive marketplace is challenging indeed and for helicopter manufacturer AgustaWestland (AW), the journey to make its mark in the Canadian marketplace can best be described as a solid work in progress – with definite successes along the way.

Offshore oil leader CHC utilizes the AW139 for many of its oil and gas operations. (Photo courtesy of AgustaWestland)


With well established competing OEMs including Bell Helicopter and Airbus Helicopters offering a diverse selection of aircraft tailored to the specific demands of the Canadian military and civilian markets, the competition is indeed tough, but AW is not without its own potent lineup. Its AW Family of the AW139, AW149, AW169, AW189 and the new AW109 utility version Trekker – introduced with much pomp and circumstance at Heli-Expo last year – offers its own attributes, stacking up nicely in a number of key market segments.

To date, AW has achieved solid global success with more than 4,900 helicopters in service, and some 90 commercial and military helicopters sold in Canada. The company has made a strong push on the helicopter emergency medical services segment (HEMS) with both STARS (western Canadian air medical transport provider) and ORNGE (Ontario’s air medical transport provider) using the AW139. And on the military side, the medium-lift CH-149 Cormorant remains the backbone of Royal Canadian Air Forces (SAR) search and rescue (SAR) teams.


Helicopters sat down with Enrico Canal, Head of Region for the Canadian commercial helicopter market (civil and public utility applications) and Jeremy Tracy (government/military) to get a better understanding of AW’s plans for 2015 and beyond, its future targets in the Canadian market, the commitment to safety and more. If one thing resonated clearly from the discussions, both are very optimistic about market potential and the prospects for future growth.

Helicopters: What area’s offer the most potential for AW in Canada in both the civil and military markets over the next few years?

EC: AW has enhanced its Canadian fleet significantly, with Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) applications being the bright star. Still, as far as the civil market is concerned, looking at the presently flying fleet and the relevant market share, Canada still represents huge potential. And while four AW models are already flying in HEMS operations in four Canadian provinces, this segment also presents room for growth. We feel the AW product range very well fits the high safety and performance standards required in this kind of operation.

It’s also impossible not to consider the utility and aerial work segment as an opportunity in Canada. The introduction of the AW109 utility version, the Trekker – featuring skid landing gear and a new integrated modular avionic suite – will allow AW to offer a dedicated rugged light twin engine.

JT: In the military market, AW hopes to conclude the conversion of the VH-71s for added SAR capability for the RCAF and the Mid-life Update (MLU) of the current 14 Cormorant to give Canada a unified fleet of 21 all weather SAR helicopters.

The AW139  
The AW139 is an intrinsic part of London Air’s business model. (Photo courtesy of AgustaWestland)


Helicopters: In terms of product development, the aging Canadian fleet offers real opportunity for AgustaWestland. Which aircraft will best suit the needs of Canadian operators now and in the future?

EC: I can see the Trekker as a great asset to address a role that AW in the past could only marginally address, as we lacked a light-twin skidded platform. Although slowly, we have started seeing more and more requirements that used to be for the single engine platform, now shifted to light twins aimed at enhancing safety. The AW109 Trekker seems to match this Canadian market tendency.

I also expect the AW169 to be very successful in Canada. It’s the only new generation light intermediate helicopter in development in 40 years and it’s getting close to certification.

JT: We see opportunities in the future replacement of the Griffon in the early 2020s. We have briefed DND on the AW169M, AW139M and AW149 to give them a range of possible capabilities they may wish to consider. Additionally, as the DND is looking at future pilot training, the AW has a range of products that fill that niche market, depending on the line the RCAF wishes to go. And with regard to the Polar helicopter for the Canadian Coast Guard, AW has the civil certified AW139 and the AW189 as possibilities depending upon the Coast Guard requirements.

Helicopters: Are there other voids in the market that you can see AgustaWestland targeting in the next few years? More emphasis on the civil market? Military?

EC: The VIP and corporate market has always been an AW strength. The typical streamed-line fuselage, design interior, inherent safety and high performance make the AW models of great attraction to this market segment. And while quite a few AW helicopters are already flying in Canada as VIP or corporate (Grand and Grand New and AW139), I trust we could greatly enlarge its share in this market. As well, the introduction of the AW169 will nicely fill the gap between the successful AW109 legacy of light twins and the AW139.

JT: AW has discussed the viability of introducing the AW609 tiltrotor for long-range operations into the Arctic and in an air ambulance role to some of the remote areas of the North. The aircraft looks to be certified in 2017 and will be a rapid response vehicle for the areas in the Northern latitudes where airfields are not accessible.

AgustaWestland has made considerable strides in the Canadian market, particularly in the HEMs segment.
(Photo courtesy of STARS)


Helicopters: Following up with operators is a great way to find out their perceptions of product, their needs etc. What feedback have you received from operators about your products? Any areas you’d like to improve?

EC: Willingness to improve is a mindset, as nothing is perfect and everything can be improved. AW has developed its legacy products, upgrades and design choices as a driver and baseline with operator’s inputs.

There are many examples of this approach. For example, we received indication that there’s potential for an AW109 with skids and we started proper surveys and arranged dedicated customer panels during its development. The AW139 has achieved great maturity also thanks to customer feedback. The AW189 and AW169 have been designed with the customer in mind and taking into account their specific requirements: long range/high capacity and maximized flexibility.

When I started looking after the Canadian market a year ago, one feedback I heard over and over again ever since has been: skids. “We need skids . . We want skids.” There’s no doubt that a large portion of helicopter operations in Canada require skids, although there are still some cases where this same requirement belongs to what operators are used to more than to the strict necessity of it. Fixed wheeled landing gear with bear paws or snow skids, in some cases, can be as efficient as skids, but retaining the advantage of allowing taxiing the helicopter around. The AW109 Trekker is an example of how crucial operator’s feedback has been for us.

JT: AW remains fully engaged with its customers and Canada is no exception. We strive to improve our service to each and every operator. The DND is fully involved in direct meetings with the AW every six months and then in User Groups, along with other AW101 operators, every six months. We also take part in an annual Operations and Safety conference every December. Canada successfully achieves its annual yearly flying rate through the service offered by the ISS supplier IMP Aerospace and Defence.

Helicopters:  What are some of the differences in market demand in Canada versus those in the U.S. and Europe? What makes the Canadian market unique?

EC: Every market place is different, but Canada, if possible, is “more different” than others. I see two main aspects that drive the Canadian Helicopter market today: it is highly influenced by Canada’s unique territory dimension, varied landscape and harsh environment (cold weather and proximity to the Arctic Circle). This typically requires most operations to be carried out only in the hot season, meaning plenty of short-term contracts (seasonal). It makes it difficult for operators to invest in their assets (new machines, the latest technology).

The main helicopter activity in Canada is and has always been linked to utility operations (aerial work, forestry, long line, etc.) with single-engines helicopters representing the vast majority of the helicopter fleet and VFR operations being the standard. There are very few capable IFR operators and operations performed in Canada, where in Europe, it’s the opposite. In the U.S., IFR is already more of a standard.

This explains the current Canadian fleet (highly populated by single engines and a quite high average age) and helicopter utilization and market requirements, that is looked at, only in terms of “how much it can lift for what cost.”

From another perspective, Canada’s technical expertise (pilots and technicians) is one of the best in the world. Pilots fly in extreme conditions while maintenance technicians need to design specific solutions during winters.

The new AW109 Trekker should appeal to the Canadian market. (Photo courtesy of AgustaWestland)


Helicopters: Working to create the safest helicopter environment possible is a top priority for operators and OEMs alike. How is AgustaWestland working to ensure the Canadian operating environment is as safe as possible?

EC: Safety is not and cannot be one party interest: OEM’s, operators, final customers, local aeronautical authority. It is, and has to be, everybody’s ultimate goal. We have to work together to achieve that. There is a need to improve the perception of helicopters as capable pieces of high technology with high safety embedded. A clear example, is the huge difference in terms of safety standards between the oil and gas sector – offshore operations and onshore ops. The safety envelope is not always the same. Why are the standards (passengers, crew) flying onshore different than those flying offshore? This doesn’t provide a fertile soil to enhance assets and services taking advantage of what technology has made available. Of course there are others aspects like infrastructure availability (helipads, approach paths certification, navigation) that are also requisite for moving to the next step. This is amply discussed in the community, for example within the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC). Some (very few) operators have tried to offer a different approach that, until now, has been pushed back by a “cheaper offer.” Until all of players in the community agree that it’s time to change, there will always be a push back. I think that the industry is ready to make it happen, and for sure AW is.

AW has invested in safety and Canada can benefit from it. The AW Family concept training approach offers unique commonalities to move from one type of aircraft to another. Systems such as the LiDAR, the AW189 50 min run-dry MGB, the icing protection systems, NVG and TCAS give great enhancements.

JT: I agree that safety is a culture inbred into the workforce and ethics of an organization. The Cormorant with its three engines, has demonstrated run dry capability, excellent autopilot, redundant systems and all weather capability. It was a step forward in safety and still to this day is recognized for its attention to safety and smoothness.

Helicopters: How can AgustaWestland remain competitive in the Canadian marketplace going forward against stiff competition from Airbus Helicopters, Bell Helicopter, Sikorsky and other OEMs?

EC: AW has to become more competitive for sure. It’s just a matter of fact that our competitors have established themselves in Canada, far before us, and their local market share is self-explanatory. This is clearly a competitive advantage, having a big fleet already flying around with both operators and final users being used to their assets and services. To change requires an extra effort, but if you never change, you will never get to know if there is something better. Many have done that already, very few have gone back.

We need to keep listening to the unique requirements of this market and further customize our products on top of the multi-purpose design of our models and the many options already available on each one of them. We also need to make support and services more accessible to customers and meet their expressed needs.

JT: AW continues to win orders across both civil and military markets due to the careful development of products to suit market demands. The development of the all-weather AW139, AW149 and AW189 are particularly suited to both the civil and military markets. The new AW169 brings new vision to the light intermediate twin and sits in between the intermediate AW139 and the light AW109 and AW119.

Ontario medical transport provider ORNGE has a fleet of AW139s. (Photo courtesy of AgustaWestland)


Helicopters: Many corporate leaders I have spoken with speak of finding the right talent to drive their operations in the future. How do you create a corporate environment at AgustaWestland that establishes trust and promotes growth, development and initiative?

EC: Heritage and established excellence are crucial to strengthen community identity. Also, the combination of innovation and involvement of the younger generation is key to our success. Approximately 32 per cent of our employees out of a total of more than 13,000 are under 35. We invest an average of 12 per cent of our yearly revenues into R&D and young employees are deeply involved in it. We also work with a number of with universities and research centres in the development of new technology programs to give young people new opportunities.

Helicopters: The AgustaWestland Family of aircraft is quite diverse and have many qualities that would suit the Canadian market. Some operators are using the AW139 in a number of capacities. What other opportunities are out there?

EC: The AW139 has been an unprecedented success, with more than 700 units delivered and more than 800 sold in nine years. The AW189, launched in summer 2011, has accumulated more than 130 sales, including framework contracts and options, to date and was certified in early 2014 with the first batch of aircraft already in service globally now. The AW169 has accumulated more than 120 sales, including framework contracts and options, and is about to be certified. Considering the appetite that the market has been showing towards new technology, AW is well positioned, if not the best positioned, to capture most of this market.

Helicopters:  Do you feel AgustaWestland is doing enough to grow its position in Canada?

EC: We want to be “synonymous with vertical lift” and we are in many places around the world, but not yet to the extent we aim at in Canada. Most operators know the brand, some know our products, few have experienced them.

I’m convinced that there is plenty of room for AW in Canada, but it is paramount that operators and final users get to try what our helicopters and services are about.

We have a lot to do and it starts with making sure our customers and prospects know what we have to offer. Of course, it cannot happen overnight, it will require time and a constant effort from our side.

JT: AW has to grow in an affordable way, and consequently with the attention devoted to meeting the current requirements, we are well placed. As to the future, if some of the contracts come to fruition, AW will grow its offices and its commitment to Canadian Industry through the Industrial Technical Benefits it is able to offer. AW has been a very good partner to Canadian industry in the past and has always met its obligations to the Canadian Government. With the current range of aircraft the company builds, we are well placed to grow both the civil and military market quite significantly.


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