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On the Road Again

January 12, 2015  By Paul Dixon

In a business environment where global operations have become a necessary fact of life, how does a helicopter operator survive in an environment where costs are high and margins can be frustratingly slim? It takes the support of a remarkably small core of professionals, who take on challenges others decline, to move helicopters around the world from where they are today to where they will be needed tomorrow – keeping them flying while they are on the job and bringing them back when it’s all over.

In a business environment where global operations have become a necessary fact of life, how does a helicopter operator survive in an environment where costs are high and margins can be frustratingly slim? It takes the support of a remarkably small core of professionals, who take on challenges others decline, to move helicopters around the world from where they are today to where they will be needed tomorrow – keeping them flying while they are on the job and bringing them back when it’s all over.

Almost there  
Almost there. A CHC helicopter en route to the New York Stock Exchange rests on the Brooklyn waterfront with One World Trade Centre as the backdrop. (Photo courtesy of IMT)


With headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, the Panalpina Group is one of the world’s largest freight-forwarding and logistics companies, employing more than 16,000 in some 500 offices on six continents. Panalpina has divisions that specialize in taking on the difficult jobs and managing them from start to finish. From an office at Vancouver International Airport, a team of five coordinates the transportation of helicopters.

As well, Panalpina’s global airfreight division expedites shipment of spare parts and just about everything needed to support helicopter operations in the far-flung corners of the world.


International Machine Transportation (IMT), located in Abbotsford B.C., also serves the North American aerospace industry with custom-built trailers and drivers that are specifically trained for the loads they carry. While World Courier specializes in providing time-critical services to world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies, researchers and labs, the high-level performance allows them to provide urgent delivery of mission-critical components when the “usual” isn’t good enough.

At the YVR office, Juerg Boschung, head of Panalpina’s helicopter shipping division, describes how the relationship with the helicopter industry has matured over the past 30 years. “This is a small part of the Panalpina’s overall business, but it has been my focus,” he says. “Out of our 16,000 people worldwide, only relatively few in key locations around the globe are involved in shipping helicopters. The company is on the top tier of freight forwarders and now we have this niche for helicopters. It makes us unique and that’s why people come to us.”

Boschung notes that while it is important to know how to ship goods around the world by air or by sea, it’s equally important to understand the helicopter business and know everything there is to know about individual helicopters.

“If you ask our customers what the difference is between Panalpina and 99 per cent of the other freight forwarding companies, they will tell you that we speak their language,” he says. “We know the helicopters, the dimensions and such. We’ve developed our own database and information over the years and this makes it easy for people. We have the big companies that ship with us on a regular basis, but we also have the small operators, someone who buys a helicopter in New Zealand, for example and then wonders how they are going to get it home to Canada. When they ask around, they get referred to us. We can help them prepare their helicopter for shipping, even supply a photo to show them how.”

When IMT started 23 years ago, president Mark Sorrey didn’t have helicopters on his radar. “We started off with a focus on offering something really different in the market, answering the need for special handling in different sectors,” Sorrey says. “Aerospace was one, pulp and paper was another. Initially it was the airlines and general aerospace vendors and that’s where we built our nucleus. We started by transporting aircraft engines, aircraft components and small aircraft.”

It was only eight years ago when IMT transported its first helicopter. “It took us a while to be accepted by the helicopter industry,” Sorrey says, “but we developed a reputation of knowing how to handle helicopters. We looked at it from a truckers’ point of view and transportation providers’ point of view and got together with aircraft maintenance engineers and aviation industry insiders, to work with them and develop methods for shipping. We broke through with certain operators who saw that trucking it was a viable option to flying a helicopter. People realized that sometimes it can actually be faster and certainly more cost effective.” Over the past eight years, IMT has moved more than 450 helicopters by truck, from a few kilometres across town to thousands of kilometres across the continent.

For Paul Leonidasxz, a manager with Global Courier’s Vancouver office, every package they take has a special urgency that the mainstream courier companies can’t satisfy. The bulk of the business is related to the medical and biopharmaceutical industries with time-sensitive materials that have to arrive on time, every time. When a helicopter operator has an aircraft on the ground and the critical part(s) are on the other side of the world, it’s a job for World Courier.

For example, Leonidaszx describes the urgency in getting a GPS unit from Vancouver to a base off the beaten track in Africa. This type of operator simply can’t afford to have its aircraft out of service one minute longer than absolutely necessary. These jobs require a human courier to take the package as carry-on baggage and personally deliver it to the operator’s employee waiting for them at the airport.

And using a human courier is more than just finding someone with a valid passport and a yen to travel. It’s a matter of having the right person available, which in many cases means someone who speaks the language of the country – and perhaps understands the cultural background – which can be important in navigating one’s way through customs and immigration in a country that’s far from the usual tourist track. It’s very important to send the parcel with the human courier, because a package travelling the normal package route can easily languish in customs for days or weeks before officials process it.

Looking at the business from their client’s perspective is how Panalpina and IMT deliver a top service instead of simply offering a point-to-point alternative. They understand that time is money and that can make or break an operator.

“Helicopters cost a lot of money,” says Boschung, “and even if you own the machine you don’t want your multi-million dollar asset sitting there not doing anything. If you are paying a leasing company, that’s a lot of money every month.”

Sorrey concurs, adding, “a helicopter is not just an expensive asset. It’s their livelihood, their means of generating revenue and fulfilling their contracts and obligations. We take it very seriously. We understand the consequences of not doing it right.”

When Failure Isn’t an Option
The consequences of not doing things right were painfully obvious to one firm that thought it could save some money bringing its helicopter back to Canada from the other side of the world if it managed the job themselves. The trip was going smoothly until just outside Vancouver when the truck driver the company had hired misjudged the clearance requirements while motoring down the highway. Overpass versus a helicopter? The result wasn’t pretty.

Boschung and Sorrey are quick to point out that their companies had nothing to do with this escapade, and both are intimately aware of the incident. Sorrey notes, that in 23 years, IMT has never had an insurance claim. It takes significant work to understand how to get a helicopter from point A to point B, while doing it safely in the most cost-effective way possible based on a client’s schedule.

One way to ensure a smooth trip, Boschung notes, is to work closely with clients in the initial bidding process. “They need a move cost, which can include various items. The ferry flight, the actual shipping, insurance, customs overseas and the ferry flight to the final destination from the port or airport – there are many things to consider.”

While it generally takes a few days for Boschung’s team to consider all the variables and put a proposal together, it’s not unusual to get an urgent call. “In fact, we got a call this morning and were told that we had to get it (the move) done today. We draw on our historical information in a case like this and normally we can be very close, close enough for them to put in their bid.”

Time is a critical determinate in how a helicopter gets shipped around the world, whether it goes by sea or by air. Shipping by sea is less expensive, but it takes much longer. Another consideration is how many helicopters can be shipped at the same time. An Antonov-124 can carry three heavy helicopters at once, with a delivery time measured in hours instead of weeks, minimizing the loss of revenue hours

If you can put three heavy 20 MIO helicopters on an Antonov-124 for delivery to the same destination. This can be just as cost effective when taking into account all factors, with a timeline measured in days instead of weeks.

Boschung gives an example of how a potential job evolves. “A client has a helicopter at some place in Canada and they have a job in Brunei,” he says. “We work out the best way to handle the job. It might be best to ship it from Houston, depending on the service to Singapore. Then, we determine if it is best to ferry it from Canada to the port or truck it there, depending on the type of helicopter.  We ship it to Singapore and the customer reassembles it there, because we know there is no suitable sea service from Singapore to Brunei. Nothing works within that time frame. So, we propose a route depending on where the aircraft is and where it needs to end up and the time frame. Based on that analysis, we put together a package and a routing.”

Boschung adds that depending on where the helicopter is going from and to, it may be quicker to simply fly it all the way based on a lack of shipping options or if there is any kid of bureaucracy in that corner of the world. “When helicopters arrive at the port in some countries, it can be a big problem to get cleared, but if they fly in to an airport, it’s often more straightforward,” he says. “We will tell the client how it is, even if it means we don’t get this job. We want them to come back to us in the future.”

Other Key Logistical Realities
Understanding the cost and time factors associated with each mode of transportation is only part of the picture.

An S-92 about to embark on a trip to Europe on a Roll On, Roll Off (RORO) ship. (Photo courtesy of Panalpina Inc.)


“There’s also the dismantling, preparation and crating,” Boschung notes. “It may not fit in a container, but it can still go on a container ship.” Often, it’s possible to accommodate large helicopters below deck on container vessels, by making special arrangements.

“We have brought S-61s back from Australia like this, then it takes a few days to put it back together,” he says. “It can be a lot cheaper than shipping on a RORO vessel with only the blades removed. You have to have containers for the removed components and the blades. You have to be set up to do that.” Next, it’s a matter of knowing which shipping companies are willing to accommodate the special handling requirements for transporting helicopters that will accommodate multiple container spaces in a hold to avoid salt-water contamination.

Even though Vancouver is a major seaport and processes millions of containers a year, depending on the origin or destination of the shipment, the more direct route may be through the Port of Tacoma or another U.S. port. Boschung describes the uses of trucks as a relatively recent choice for some types of helicopters.

“It used to be that with the heavy aircraft, S-92, S-61, 225s, Pumas, etc., people preferred to ferry them to and from the port,” Boschung says. “Take the blades off, we supply the cranes and support. Then it’s on to the ship, reassembled on the other side and they fly it away. It still often happens now, but sometimes an aircraft may be unserviceable or there may be a shortage of crew, so it may be necessary or more convenient, though it’s a lot of money, to truck a large helicopter from port of arrival to destination hangar. It’s a big load, you need a lot of permits and it’s actually at the maximum of what you can truck over the road. We work with IMT here and we have a very good trucking partner in the U.K. that specializes in trucking helicopters.”

Sorrey agrees, adding, “People are getting over their reservations about putting it (the aircraft) on a truck once they see how it can be done and the specialized equipment involved. There are times where the aircraft really does need to be flown, but there are times where it doesn’t make sense. We’ve proven that it can be a very economical way of deploying aircraft and we’re hoping that more operators will see it that way.”

Panalpina, IMT and Global Courier have grown with their clients, mainly by placing an emphasis on understanding their needs from their perspectives. Boschung has invested more than 30 years in developing this highly specialized niche, the past 20 with his team for Panalpina. Sorrey has put 23 years into creating a service that adds value to his customer’s businesses.

In the beginning, aerospace was a small part of IMT’s business; today it makes up 70 per cent and helicopters are a large part of that. For Leonidasxz at Global Courier, working effectively with clients is simply a matter of total empathy – and having a worldwide network that caters to their every need. None of these services are the least expensive option, but for a client who understands the true costs of doing business in today’s world there are large savings to be had.


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