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Monday, November 1, 2004

Serving Crème de la Crème

by Douglas W. Nelms

Operating along the Côte d'Azur requires more than just having a good helicopter operation. It means dealing with normal issues greatly expanded by very, very important people.

There's something mystical about the Côte d'Azur, that stretch of the Riviera that reaches from the Italian border across the top of the Ligurian Sea westward to the Gulf d'Lyon. Its magical names include St. Tropez, Nice, Cannes and, of course, Monaco--a small principality snuggled up against the French and Italian borders.

The Côte d'Azur is ranked as one of the five most popular tourist destinations in the world, with some 10 million visitors per year, of which 60 percent are non-French. Its 2,400 hotels include 22 percent of all four-star hotels in France. And within that 10 million visitors a year are vast numbers of VIPs ranging from heads of state to movie stars to people with just tons of money.

It is therefore of little surprise that the typical problems facing any helicopter operator--particularly noise and operating regulations--are magnified far beyond the norm.

To deal with these issues, the four major helicopter operators that serve the Riviera and points inland have banded together in a loose-knit association to promote their services and educate regulators, local governments and other interested parties on the value of the helicopter to the local communities. The association, called "Sky Helicopters," is made up of Heli Securité and Nice Hélicoptères of France, and Heli Air Monaco and Monacair of Monaco.

The association is headed by Jacques Crovetto of Heli Air Monaco, the oldest and largest of the four helicopter companies. Founded in 1976 by two brothers, Jacques and Patrick Crovetto, Heli Air Monaco is one of two operators authorized to provide scheduled service between Nice and Monaco. The Nice-Monaco run is a major operation, with some 100,000 passengers per year taking the seven- to eight-minute flight. By car, it can take from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on traffic. Although all four operators provide service between the Nice airport and Monaco heliport, only Heli Securité and Heli Air Monaco are authorized to fly scheduled service between the two. Monacair and Nice Hélicoptères provide ad hoc charter flights. Heli Air Monaco currently flies about 90 percent of the Nice-Monaco passengers, although Heli Securité "is growing and expects to carry a greater percentage in the future," according to Daniel Richier, head of operations for Heli Securité .

Headquartered in Grimaud, near St. Tropez, Heli Securité operates both as a scheduled shuttle service between Nice and Monaco, and as a charter operator covering the Mediterranean area and Alpine region, specifically Annecy and Courchevel in the French Alps.

The four operators are exclusively Eurocopter operators. Heli Securité flies five AS350s, an EC120 and an AS355F; Heli Air Monaco operates an AS365, six AS350s and an EC120. Nice Hélicoptères has three AS350s while Monacair has an AS350 and an EC120, although it has an EC155 on order.

Although the four companies are fierce competitors, the Sky Helicopter association was formed about a year ago "so that we could talk with one voice to the administrations" along the Côte d'Azur, said Patrick Crovetto, managing director for Heli Air Monaco. "We were never united, but this lets us talk to the Chambers of Commerce, administrations, civil aviation and others because they would say that because we are not together, we could not do this or that."

The primary goal of the organization is to increase the number of heliports along the Côte d'Azur, Crovetto said. "Today it is very difficult to find a place to land. We have a lot of people wanting to fly to different destinations, but it is very crowded and when you land somewhere there is always someone there complaining that it is too nosy. It is a pity because it would be so easy to have a helipad in every harbor. It would not be noisy because we fly over the sea. We have this chance, but no city along the coast wants to help us."

Crovetto noted that in St. Tropez, "which is a very important center, there are no heliports. But some days in the summer there might be 40 flights a day that could go in there." Five years ago, the main helipad at St. Tropez was closed because of noise complaints. Now, helicopters must use Grimaud, located 10 km. from St. Tropez. While that is only slightly over six miles from the artists colony originally made famous throughout France by writers and artists such as Guy de Maupassant and Henri Matisse, and then throughout the world in the 1950s by Brigitte Bardot, "the traffic is very bad and it is very difficult to get into St. Tropez," Richier said. He noted, however, that the people who have large villas there often have the helicopters land right in their gardens to be picked up or dropped off.

To promote their efforts toward getting greater acceptance of helicopter operations along the Côte d'Azur and inland into Provence and the south of France, the association held a meeting last year in which they invite over 100 people representing French national and local area governments, members of the French Chambers of Commerce, airport representatives, Eurocopter and other representatives involved in the helicopter industry in the area.

"The governments on the Côte d'Azur do not help the helicopter industry," Crovetto said. "In the 28 years we have been here, they have not helped the helicopter [industry] to grow." At they meeting last year, "they say they do things to support the helicopter, but they do not." Additional meetings are tentatively scheduled to be held every two years.

The association is currently putting out a white paper discussing both the problems facing the operators and the benefits to the communities they serve, ranging from the issue of meeting the new JAR Ops3 regulations to high landing fees and the current passenger tax of 15 euros for flights between Nice International Airport and Monaco.

Along with the efforts to get lower landing fees and passenger tax is an effort to reduce the rules and regulations for getting into and out of airports, specifically dealing with taxiing and handling requirements.

One success story to date is an effort by the association to stop the Cannes city government from closing the helipad at Cannes Palm Beach. The helipad was originally scheduled to be closed last August. However, the association managed to convince the Cannes government to leave it open until next August, when a new helipad is expected to be completed at Quai Laubeuf, the jetty at the end of Cannes beach.

Salim Zeghdar, general manager for Monacair, said that one of the things that the association is working on most is convincing people that the new helicopters that are now starting to be used by the operators are so much quieter than the older models. "We need to convince people that the noise is getting less. For instance, the EC120 is eight decibels less than the AS350."

Although there are other helicopter operators flying in the south of France, the four members of the association account for 99 percent of the flights on the French Riviera, Zeghdar said. Of the four, Heli Air Monaco is the oldest, started in 1976 while Heli Securitť†©s the youngest with eight years.

Monaco Operations

Monacair is 16 years old, formed in 1988 by Stefano Casiraghi, then-husband of Princess Caroline. Casiraghi subsequently died in a speedboat racing accident in 1990. However, Monacair is still a privately owned company and remains the official carrier of the palace, carrying all the Prince's family, Zeghdar said. "We are the only one to carry the royal family," as well as all heads of state who fly into or from Monaco, he said.

Although the smallest of the four Sky Helicopter association members, Monacair is typical of the type of operator along the Côte d'Azur. Monaco itself is only 1.9 sq. km. (0.75 sq. mi.) with a population of 32,000. However, its position between the French and Italian Riviera gives it a massive catchment area for the worldwide tourist trade aimed at the Côte d'Azur, or Blue Coast.

Both companies, Monacair and Heli Air Monaco, operate out of Monaco's only airport--Monaco International Heliport. Monacair currently operates only a single AS350B and an EC120 but is highly eclectic, providing a full range of services, including VIP transport, charter, sightseeing, flight training and aerial photography. It also operates throughout southern France and Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Corsica, Zeghdar said.

The EC120 was acquired last April to meet an increasing demand for short VIP charter flights, which includes members of the royal family and their friends. The EC120 is ideal for the type of charter operations for two or three people that Monacair normally flies, Zeghdar said. He said that they expect to fly a total of 900 hr. for the year, of which around 500 will be for VIP charter flights. "Our hope for the coming years is to maintain our current figures, although we are quite aware that the market is rather difficult at the moment."

The company recently sold its twin-engine AS365N to a company in Malaysia, but has an EC155 on order, he said.

As part of its personnel transport charter operations, Monacair also sells blocks of time, Zeghdar said. This is not a partial ownership or shared time concept, but simply a way for a frequent traveler to prepurchase flight time at a cheaper rate. "They pay for 15 to 20 hours (of flight time) at a special price and use the time when they want it," he said. The smallest block of time is 10 hours, with a 50-hour maximum.

Flight training is provided for pilots who want to transition from piston engine helicopters or from an aircraft such as a Bell 206 to the AS350, "but we do not train pilots who are not already rated," Zeghdar said.

The two companies, Monacair and Heli Air Monaco, provide their helicopters as video platforms for events such as the famed Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Rallye de Monte Carlo, as well as general aerial photography work.

Although a totally independent city/state, Monaco is irrevocably entwined with the French, particularly in regards to its helicopter operators. This means that both Monacair and Heli Air Monaco must meet French DGCA regulations.

"Monaco has a civil aviation authority and is under the JAA, so we work under JAR Ops 3 control," Zeghdar said. "However, in Monaco, all public transport companies are under the same rule as the Public Transport of France, so Monacair operates exactly under the same rules as the French. Every two years a team from the JAA comes to Monaco to make an inspection visit so that we can keep our license for public transport. But also every year the French DGAC authorities come for an audit. Sometimes those audits are planned, sometimes not."

Although not a member of the European Community, Monaco's direct link into the French system makes it a party to the Schengen Agreement of June 1990 that essentially abolished borders between the member states.

"This gives us ready access into France, Germany and Italy," Zeghdar said.

Monacair also has a lot of flights into Switzerland, which does require passengers to clear customs.

"We do not need special authority to go into Switzerland, just a flight plan. But we must fly into someplace that has customs," he said.

As would be expected of a company that specializes in VIP transport, Monacair has very strict requirements involving both its aircraft and its pilots. "We have very experienced pilots because we are the pilots of the Prince and all the heads of state who come here," Zeghdar said. "Also, we fly many famous people here, so often a VIP passenger will have a special insurance requirement for helicopter flight, so we must fly them with a pilot with a minimum number of hours." Most of Monacair pilots are former French Army pilots, with the lowest-time pilot having around 4,000 hr. and the highest around 9,000 hr., he said.

As with most European helicopter operators, one of Monacair's biggest problems is with the weather, despite its location on the sun-swept beaches of the Riviera. Its operations into the French, Italian and Swiss Alps means that it is constantly facing fog and icing conditions. "We can fly IFR, but we don't have anti-icing, so when the temperature is down, all operations are cancelled," Zeghdar said. "For example, when we have a flight to Milan, sometimes it is very difficult because the weather in Milan is very awful. Occasionally, I have the possibility to change (to an IFR) helicopter when the price is right, but often I must cancel the flight."

Monacair's new EC155 will be IFR certified, but still not have de-icing. "So when the temperature is below zero, we must cancel the flight." Roughly 20 to 30 percent of Monacair's flights for the past year were cancelled because of weather, he said. Of those, about 10 to 15 percent could have been made IFR, "but the other's would have been impossible because of icing."

Zeghdar said that there are no plans to purchase a larger helicopter that would have de-icing, such as the Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma or EC225. "The cost is too high and there is not that much demand for a helicopter of that size. We can rent helicopters--for example for the Grand Prix in Monaco I rented two (AS365) Dauphines, but generally we don't have a group of 20 VIP passengers."

Future fleet plans could include a new EC130 as well as the EC155, along with additional EC120s. "Today the EC120 is a new generation of helicopter of helicopter with low noise and very secure with new technology, but we will maybe buy a new EC130. It will help to increase our business to have a fleet of five or six helicopter. Our plans are to grow with a new fleet over the next five years."

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