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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Heli-Expo Show Day: Are the S-92 and Light Jets Shrinking the BA609 Market?

James T. McKenna

BELL HELICOPTER AND AGUSTAWESTLAND OFFICIALS remain committed to gaining certification of and fielding the BA609 civil tilt-rotor. But they may be doing so for a smaller market.

The partner companies are working toward certification of the BA609 by late 2010 or early 2011. However, the aircraft’s protracted development appears to be costing it market share by allowing competitors to gain ground. Bell’s senior vice president for marketing and sales, Bob Fitzpatrick, told Rotor & Wing that the success of Sikorsky Aircraft’s S-92 in offshore-support markets and the advent of a new class of very light jets is eating into potential BA609 sales.

"The 609’s market is not going to be as big as everyone thought it was," he said.

Assessments of the civil tilt-rotor’s market potential have always hinged on what price customers were willing to pay for speed.

In the offshore market, Fitzpatrick said, the more accurate issue is how fast an aircraft can move a specific number of people. When the BA609 enters service, it may be able to fly twice as fast as the S-92. But the S-92 carries twice as many passengers (19 vs. 9). Which is to say the civil tilt-rotor has to fly two missions to transport the same number of oil workers to an offshore platform as the S-92 can. That negates its speed advantage except in specific circumstances.

Very light jets are eroding another key BA609 market: corporate transport. They can operate from 3,000-ft runways, of which there are 6,000 in BA609 markets, Fitzpatrick said. That gives executives more options for flying point to point, or close to it. Considering again the price-for-speed equation, he said, an executive can buy a very light jet and a helicopter. With that combination, he can cover the necessary ground nearly as fast as the turboprop BA609. That executive can get the jet-helicopter combination for considerably less than the $16 million price tag of a BA609.

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