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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Rays of Hope Amid the Gloom

By John Persinos

While I was glad-handing at February’s Heli-Expo 2009 in Anaheim, the incessant need for helicopters to undergo intensive maintenance emerged as a major topic of discussion at the show. As one wag said to me: "Helicopters don’t so much fly, as beat the air into submission."

Every time the maintenance issue is broached at Heli-Expo, it stimulates a flurry of promises and plans of action: enhanced health and usage monitoring dystems (HUMS); better training of mechanics; faster turnaround of repairs; improved customer service; etc.

I should know: I served as editor-in-chief of Rotor & Wing magazine from 1998-2003. The issues that I heard at this year’s Heli-Expo were unresolved back in 1998 — and way before then. Sometimes, hearing this stuff at trade shows, I feel like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," where events keep repeating themselves ad nauseam.

That said, Heli-Expo this year was a success. Despite the worldwide economic recession, the rotorcraft market is more than holding its own. Demand for the inherent capabilities of these lifesaving and productivity enhancing tools remains relatively strong, especially in the context of slumping sales for the rest of the aviation sector.

On the minds of all helicopter industry insiders at Heli-Expo was one overriding question: Will rotorcraft continue to weather the storm, or is the industry on borrowed time?

Those topics are on the agenda of an Aviation Today webinar scheduled for April 23, entitled: "Today’s Best Opportunities in Rotorcraft". If you miss the event, you can still access a recorded version on our webinar archive at www.AviationToday.com.

Attendance at Heli-Expo 2009 was relatively high and optimism abounded. There was no shortage of news, some of it surprising. Speaking at a press dinner that I attended at the show, AgustaWestland CEO Giuseppe Orsi stated: "We are working with Bell to optimize the BA-609 tiltrotor program; our goal is to certify the tiltrotor as soon as possible."

Orsi’s comments came in the wake of previous intimations from Bell Helicopter executives, uttered in July at the Farnborough 2008 Air Show, that Bell wanted to transfer more work to partner AgustaWestland in the long-running BA-609 tiltrotor program.

Orsi also tried to accentuate the positive amid a gloomy economic context. "Someone recently said to me, ‘Don’t go to HAI, you’ll just get depressed,’" Orsi said, to laughter from the assembled reporters. "That’s when I decided to come. I want to suggest — and I know I can’t suggest anything to the press — that the industry is doing well. Our industry is not the banks. We don’t have any ‘bad’ technology. Everything we do is a stone for preparing for the future."

Orsi emphasized the need for the industry to develop adequate infrastructure, to help rotorcraft realize its full potential. "What we want is a network of vertiports that will be linked," he said. "We will make it a European issue and hopefully in America, something will happen. We must develop infrastructure."

In response to my question about maintenance problems with the CH-149 Cormorant SAR helicopter and its poor availability rating with the Canadian government, he said that AgustaWestland has implemented an operational availability improvement program that expedites spare parts provisioning and reduces the aircraft’s chronic maintenance burden. "The Canadian government will tell you that the availability rate trend is improving," Orsi told me.

Meanwhile, at the Eurocopter press breakfast that I attended at the show, the Franco-German rotorcraft manufacturer announced that the grim global economic climate probably would push down the company’s sales by more than 30 percent in 2009. The good news, company executives said, is that the expected downturn in civil sales will be mitigated by the company’s robust military and governmental backlog.

Eurocopter’s revenue picture, as conveyed at Heli-Expo, serves as a microcosm of the industry’s wider fortunes. For details about the rotorcraft market’s prospects — and how those prospects affect the MRO niche — register for our April 23 webinar.

The commercial helicopter world gathered in Anaheim under darkening storm clouds but, to the pleasant surprise of many industry observers, there also was plenty of California sunshine to go around.

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