Helicopters Magazine

The Gorilla in the Room

January 27, 2021  By Fred Jones

Another lean summer awaits operators, as virus vaccinations slow and mutations grow

Even in the face of all the other challenges our industry is confronted with, it’s hard not to write an article on any subject without confronting the impact that COVID-19 has on the commercial aviation community. While CEWS and CEBA have provided some limited relief to the community, the devastating impact of the pandemic is undeniable. The entire spectrum of the commercial aviation community has been pressuring the Federal government for aviation-specific relief, without success. Air operators; airports; NAV CANADA; the OEMs and other industry suppliers – no one is safe from the effects of the pandemic.

For Canadian commercial helicopter operators, couple this with the slowest fire season in Canadian history, and it’s hard not to consider that the summer of 2020 was a perfect storm. In 2021, summer projects continue to be delayed and cancelled. The 2020-2021 heli-ski season was crippled. Cross-border travel continues to be constrained by closed land-crossings and most recently by new travel restrictions imposed on inbound travelers to Canada arriving by air. Even the essential nature of much of the work that Canada’s helicopter operators carry out was not enough to encourage many helicopter operators in the face of an uncertain 2021 season. 

Canadian helicopter operators have always been adaptable – I have argued, chameleon-like – in terms of their ability to expand into new, promising fields of operation and withdraw quickly from other less-promising areas. 

Even as the COVID-19 vaccines slowly start to roll-out in Canada, the arrival of new mutated strains of the virus have dampened some optimism around the future of the summer of 2021 operating season. “The only certain thing is uncertainty” we often say, but in the ordinarily uncertain helicopter world, there is considerably more uncertainty, now. 


The medical community talks about the three legs of the stool, where the new mutated viruses are concerned: their transmissive potential; their fatality rate; and the ability of the currently available vaccines to protect the immunized from infection. 

Already we have seen variants of the disease that are 70 per cent more infectious. While the currently available vaccines still appear to offer protection from the new mutated strains, the slow rollout of the vaccines and the uncertainty around future mutations has given rise to some considerable doubt that a return to normal business is likely to occur this spring or summer. In short, all indications are that essential services will continue to be provided, but masks, social distancing, and lockdowns will remain part of our day-to-day operations for some time, yet. 

The damper that the virus has placed on business generally – and particularly on the commercial helicopter community – will prevail at least through this summer’s operating season. Many operators are hoping that there will be some fire activity, at the very least. Another wet summer could spell disaster for more operators. As it was, there were a number of operators who failed altogether, or at least suspended operations and laid up their aircraft for the winter of 2020. 

I have often said, “As the industry, goes – so goes it’s industry association”. HAC is also struggling with the uncertain status of membership renewals and the shape of its 2021 convention – face-to-face, virtual, or some hybrid model. Our Operator-members and Associates are anxious to get back to business, but our convention model in the Fall of 2021 will naturally be driven by public health and safety concerns. In the meantime, HAC is cutting costs and adapting to the changing landscape in the commercial helicopter community – just like its members. 

We are continuing to provide strong representation for the Canadian commercial helicopter community on a broad variety of technical and regulatory issues here in Ottawa, and working with government to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on commercial air operators. From flight training operators, aerial work, and charter operations – no one has been unaffected by COVID-19. While, I think that there is every reason to be optimistic for the future, we aren’t out of the woods yet, and this summer promises to be another lean season for the commercial helicopter community as we adapt to the constantly evolving shape of the pandemic. | H

Fred Jones is president and CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada.


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