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Sunday, August 1, 2004

CIVIL Europa

Douglas W. Nelms

Unlike its fixed-wing brother, the European civil helicopter industry is somewhat less than thriving.

Without a doubt, the business aircraft industry in Europe is in fine shape, with a very positive outlook based on a rapidly growing economy, according to Fernand Francois, the outgoing CEO of the European Business Aviation Association. Every indication, including record attendance at the recent European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition in Geneva, is that the improving economy will lead to a strong, robust civil market. Francois reported a record 6,487 attendees, up 8.4 percent over 2003, and 247 exhibitors, up 18 percent for this year's EBACE show.

That's the good news. The bad news is that this heady glow toward the European business aircraft market only marginally relates to the helicopter industry.

Brian Humphries, newly appointed EBAA CEO, said that while he did not want to appear negative, the helicopter business aircraft industry in Europe "is not going very well." A former RAF fixed and rotary wing pilot, Humphries is retiring as head of Shell Aircraft International and, along with being CEO of the EBAA, will be taking over as chairman of the British Helicopter Advisory Board, replacing the Lord Glenarthur. He stated that while Shell couldn't operate its business without the helicopter, "we make very little use, in fact no use, of them for transit from Point A to Point B over land, or even overseas between countries. We only use them when they are the only aircraft that can land in a way that requires the helicopters qualities."

This is not to say that it is all doom and gloom. Some civil markets are showing growth. The worldwide oil shortage is requiring increased offshore exploration farther out to sea, which is expected to require some operators to re-equip with new, larger and longer range aircraft such as the Eurocopter EC225 and Sikorsky S-92.

The offshore industry is being fueled "by concerns over future access to oil in the strife-torn Middle East, and by the fears of some western governments of being held hostage by the OPEC nations,"according to Newtown, Conn.-based Forecast International.

The law enforcement and EMS sectors are also growing. Forecast International noted that many EMS operators began their operations using the BK117, but will "soon begin replacing some of those with newer equipment."

The business/corporate sector, however, is expected to stay fairly stagnant-- with one of the biggest impediments to a thriving corporate helicopter industry being the well-established European high-speed train system.

Despite this, some operators are showing modest growth. Jean-Marc Regis, director of Geneva-based Swift Copter, said that their corporate business is growing, with another corporate helicopter soon to enter their fleet. Swift Copter specializes in corporate operations and current has a fleet of 11 helicopters, all but three of which are owned by corporate clients but maintained and operated by Swift Copter. Two of the three owned by Swift Copters are primarily used for flight training.

The European civil helicopter market in general is facing a myriad of issues, ranging from Mother Nature to bureaucratic rulemaking.

One of the biggest issues that the industry is trying to come to grips with is the challenge of mandatory JAA regulations. The European Aviation Safety Agency is mandating a transition of the Joint Aviation Regulations (JARs) from their current regulatory guideline status into mandatory regulations. Currently, JARs are issued to each member state as guidelines that can then be turned into regulations by the individual civil aviation authorities as desired. Under the new EASA, which became operational on September 23, 2003, JAR-OPS 3 rules regulating transport helicopters and dealing with air operations, flight crew licensing and airworthiness certification will eventually be mandated with no national variances. Currently, only a handful of EU countries are in full compliance with JAR-OPS 3.

The EASA stated that it has programmed a two-year period for the individual EU countries to bring their rules and regulations into compliance with the JAR OPS. However, "this is merely an estimation as the agency does not control the European legislative process," according to Patrick Goudou, EASA executive director.

A weeklong meeting, hosted by Eurocopter in Marignane, France and chaired by the European Helicopter Association, was held in mid-June to study the ramifications of the new EASA mandate. EHA Chief Executive Jan Willem Stuurman noted that the EASA has been concentrating on the certification rules and are almost finished with JAR 27 (small rotorcraft) and 29 (large rotorcraft) certification documents. "Those will become law, but certification has always been mostly laws since there were not many national variances because you cannot do that when you certify a helicopter. Still, there were differences by countries. But now there will not be differences in a helicopter certified in the UK, or in France or in the Netherlands."

Richard Whidborne, chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board, said that while national aviation authorities have expressed "a general desire to move towards the JAR codes, there has never been a legal imperative to do so, apart from the JAR flight crew licensing." However, "this will all change when the (EASA) assumes responsibility for Operations and Licensing, expected in 2006/7. Then all (air operator certificate) holders within the EU will have to comply with EU-OPS, which is likely to closely resemble the present JAR-OPS."

The new rules will also apply to the Swiss, even though Switzerland is not one of the 25 EU states. "The Swiss have been following the same kind of rulemaking," Stuurman said. "We are very lucky to have some Swiss specialists in our organization because they are very good."

Markus Baumann, founder of Zurich-based BB Heli AG, noted that in Switzerland, the civil aviation authority has already put JARs regarding fixed wing aircraft into place, but those for rotary wing aircraft are not yet in force. The Swiss hope to have their rotorcraft regulations rationalized with the JARs by mid-2005, although "from our experience I think it will be 2007," Baumann said. The biggest problem is not so much changing regulations as it is getting all the documentation completed, he said. Another problem facing the Swiss is that in some instances, the Swiss regulations are stricter than the JARs, "so the Swiss will have to rewrite everything, trying to keep it as strict but still meet the JARs."

"There are problems all over Europe," he said. "The regulations say it must be done by June 2005, but the Germans said they are not prepared. It is a real disaster in Germany." For instance, in Germany there are some 70 doctors certified as flight surgeons under the German Luftfahrt Bundesamt (German CAA) regulations, "but only three under JAR regulations that have the JAR training," Baumann said.

Another major issue is the need for new generation helicopters that can operate year round in the notorious European weather. Humphries said that one of the biggest problems for the corporate helicopter is simply the inability to operate in all weather.

The majority of European helicopter companies are small operators of 10 or fewer aircraft, all or most of which are light single or twin engine in the two to three ton range. These helicopters cannot fly in icing conditions and tend not to be single pilot IFR. Adding a second pilot or getting aircraft that have anti-icing reduces the profit margin to below the profit level.

Salim Zeghdar, general manager of Monacair, one of two Monaco-based helicopter operations, said that even though they could fly IFR in their twin-engine AS365N, they don't have anti-icing. "So when the temperature is down, all operations are cancelled." Monacair has now sold the AS365N and is awaiting delivery of a new twin-engine EC155. "The new EC155 will be IFR, but still will not have anti-icing. So when the temperature is zero, we will have to cancel the flight." Zeghdar said that during the past year, he has had to cancel 20-30 percent of his flights because of bad weather.

Which brings up the problem of safety. While safety is a major consideration, particularly in light of the weather conditions, a lot of the problem is simply the perception that the helicopter is not safe, Stuurman said. "The helicopter has to prove itself all the time. It is a fantastically versatile machine, so of course we do a lot of things that are necessary that force the helicopter to fly to the edge of its limits. Occasionally there are accidents, so people think the helicopter is unsafe. But in the public transport role, if you fly from Point A to Point B, you can compare it to a fixed-wing aircraft."

Humphries noted that new helicopters coming into the industry should help to some extent. "The new generation of helicopters is a great deal more capable, those just coming into service such as the EC135, the AB139, the EC155 and the S-92. There is no doubt about it, they are taking the safety and integrity of helicopters up to a new standard. They also have much better avionics and they will, in time, have the ability to operate in all weather," he said.

Humphries added, however, that there continues to be accidents caused by VFR pilots flying advanced IFR machines and losing control of them. "This is not universal across the industry, but there have been those accidents."

As for the JAR OPS 3 regulation that only twin-engine helicopters can be used over populated areas, Humphries noted that single-engine helicopters can be used if flying down a safety route. "For example, single-engine (helicopters) can fly over London if they fly down the Thames, or they can fly over Paris as long as they go over the Seine. The French have demonstrated this very well, with the excellent heliport they have at Versailles with easy access to the river. And we've demonstrated it reasonably well in the UK. But changing (the twin-engine rule) would be difficult. Of the accidents last year in the Gulf of Mexico, 30 percent were due to power loss. So personally, I don't think single engine helicopters should be operating in a way where you can't execute a safe landing in the event of an engine failure. And at this stage, I don't think the reliability is there."

Reducing the perception of the helicopter as unsafe is one of the major issues that the EHA is taking on, Stuurman said. "Perception is a problem. We are working hard on getting better public perception, using symposiums and events such as HeliExpo in the United State, HeliTech in the UK and the helicopter exhibition in Geneva this October. And, of course, articles and those kinds of things. Those are means of trying to reach the public. The general public should see the helicopter as a mature means of transportation."

The EHA is also "following the example of our friends at HAI to try to influence the younger people, the students who are going to be the important next generation," Stuurman said.

Dr. Siegfried Sobotta, chairman of the EHA, also stated that a major effort in the European helicopter market will be toward improving the perception of the helicopter to the general populace. In his acceptance speech as Chairman last September, Sobotta said that, "It is my strong conviction that the acceptance of helicopter operations in Europe has to be improved. EHA will promote activities to reduce restrictions on the political/administrative, economic and physical levels. It is regrettable that disasters like earthquakes, floods, avalanches and traffic accidents are needed to prove to the public and the authorities the extraordinary and unique advantages of helicopters. EHA will intensify lobbying activities in this aspect."

These "lobbying activities" will also be aimed at another major obstacle facing European operators--access to appropriate landing sites. "Helicopters are getting better, but the challenge is getting the infrastructure to match," Humphries said. "I think it was telling that in the UK white paper, helicopters didn't get mentioned at all. This was a government white paper on the future of transportation over the next 30 years, which was an important government document that set out extensions aimed at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted (airports), subject to air quality.

It also recognized the value of business aviation in terms of fixed wing aircraft, but it didn't make any mention of helicopters. It doesn't exclude helicopters, but it doesn't mention them, either."

The biggest problem, as much in Europe as in the United States, continues to be noise. "Helicopters are not exactly popular with the local environmentalists," Humphries said. "For example, they are not allowed to operate into London City Airport at all. There is only one heliport in London. There are limited heliports at most European cities."

London's sole heliport is at Battersea, along the banks of the Thames.

Monacair's Zeghdar agreed on the problem of noise, saying that noise regulations along the Cote d'Azur "is a big problem," with some areas such as St. Tropez not allowing helicopters to land at all.

"We need to convince people that noise is getting less. For instance, the EC120 we fly is eight decibels less than the AS350." The eight decibels cuts the noise down by roughly half. Zeghdar noted that the four major helicopter operators along the French Riviera have formed an association called Sky Helicopter "to protect and develop helicopter transport (operations) on the French Riviera," to include the reduction of noise restrictions.

Landing restrictions are not necessarily limited to the bigger cities. Baumann noted that while he can normally get permission to land a helicopter anywhere below 1,100 meters ASL, as long as it is at least 100 meters from the nearest house or structure, he can only land on official mountain helipads above 1,100 meters ASL. "And there are only 48 such helipads in Switzerland," he said.

"Requirements for permission (to land) above 1,100 meters is a political thing," he said. "Regulations came in about 20 years ago to avoid noise and pollution in these natural areas. There is great objection (to landing in the mountains) by groups like the Green Party or Red (socialist) Party, even when landing high on a glacier where there is no one around." The restrictions do not apply, Baumann noted, for rescue helicopters or to transport live stock from snowed-in pastures to lower levels.

Stuurman, who is from the Netherlands, said that regulations dealing with where helicopters are able to land "are a big problem. If you look at the Netherlands, you need a lot of strings to pull before you can use your helicopter wherever you want, and there is a lack of heliports in and around cities. People are still thinking that helicopters are making too much noise and all that kind of stuff."

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