HI Uplift: ‘Addictive’ VIP flights to grow despite supply chain woes
“The helicopter is a magic carpet – once you try it, it becomes very addictive,” Francesco Lazzarini, chief operating officer, HeliFlite told Helicopter Investor’s Town Hall. While acknowledging some potential clients’ wariness about helicopter safety, Lazzarini said they were reassured to learn HeliFlite operates only twin-engine aircraft with two pilots under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).
“If we are able to inject that needle [of VIP helicopter transport], people do get addicted,” he said. “So, it has worked for us.” The North American operator flies a fleet of Sikorsky S-76, Leonardo AW139 and Bell 429 aircraft flown by qualified airline transport pilots (ATPs).
HeliFlite reported a busy early and late summer and autumn this year – in line with 2022. But business was quieter in mid-summer, as many clients travelled to Europe. Overall, flights remained down on pre-Covid levels. “We are still 15% below the level of 2019, which was the best-of-all-times year.”
To boost business, HeliFlite last month expanded its south Florida service to the Bahamas and plans to grow services in the UK next year. The company offers flights in float-equipped helicopters from the Sunshine State to Caribbean destinations. Popular destinations from south Florida include Bimini, Bahamas, in a journey of 20 minutes, and Bakers Bay, in a flight of just over one hour. Access to a landing site near Miami Beach has helped facilitate the new services.
The operator also plans to launch new services in the UK in the second quarter of 2024. This will be in the London area, initially with one S-76. “The pie is growing – even with the challenges,” said Lazzarini.
Another operator encountering wariness about helicopter VIP services is Will Fanshawe, MD, Flexjet Helicopters. The rotary arm of private jet monolith Directional Aviation, Flexjet Helicopters offers Flexjet clients connecting services in Sikorski S-76 aircraft (pictured) direct from their private jets.
Commenting on the company’s complimentary shuttle service for G650 clients from New York airports to Manhattan or in the UK from Farnborough Airport to London Heliport, Fanshawe noted initial reluctance among some travellers. “But when passengers see it’s a twin-engine operation, operated by crew wearing the same uniforms as the jet they have just got out of, they say: ‘You are operating to the same standards,’” said Fanshawe. “We have seen people who have never flown before, burning through a year’s worth of hours in a month – it’s that addictive.”
Managed and charter aircraft have all been busy this year, according to the company. After rebranding early this year from Halo Aviation to Flexjet Helicopters, Fanshawe reported a summer spike in European business. The European market spiked around key sporting events such as the Le Mans 24-hour car race in France and in the UK, the Royal Ascot horse racing festival and the British Grand Prix motor racing event at Silverstone, he said.
Despite strong markets on both sides of the Atlantic, both operators acknowledged continuing challenges. “We are definitely seeing supply chain and maintenance-side challenges,” said Fanshawe. “The cost of maintenance is going up and we are getting a little more regulatory pressure.” For example, aircraft annual checks that used to take about two weeks can now take between three and four weeks.
It’s not just aircraft parts that are affected by supply chain bottlenecks. Pilot training slots on helicopter simulators are proving difficult to secure. Most Flexjet Helicopters pilots in Europe are now training for up to 30 hours a year in simulators, as encouraged by EU regulators, but booking time is becoming more difficult. Dealing with Leonardo products, Fanshawe said there’s a simulator in Zurich, Switzerland and one in Italy but availability is very limited. “I went out to do my recurrent [training] on the AW109 simulator and got some very sociable 3 o’clock in the morning time slots,” he said.
Supply chain challenges were also acknowledged by Lazzarini at HeliFlite. “Some support from the manufacturers has been a challenge,” he said. “Some stuff is not available, lead times are growing, prices are going up three to four times higher than they were six months ago – but we are all in the same boat.” He went on to praise the company’s relationship with industry partners Sikorsky and Safran.
Supply chain challenges had improved significantly for helicopter manufacturers Bell Flight and Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH). “It’s still a consideration but it’s improving every day,” Matthew Jayne, manager product marketing, Bell Flight told the Town Hall audience. Bell has a global resource centre, which monitors lead times and every part used in aircraft manufacture. “Also, there are daily meetings on any slips and concerns with delayed timings,” said Jayne.
Lead times will depend on demand signals, he predicted. But over the year ahead, Jayne expected lead times to stay roughly about the same – if not improve a little.
Fred Lemos, head of ACH said supply chain challenges had improved considerably since the global pandemic. Also, the manufacturer has and is boosting its recruitment programme, particularly for engineers. In February Airbus revealed plans to recruit an extra 13,000 staff worldwide this year. Backing from its parent company Airbus also helped ACH mitigate supply chain challenges.
“We are more led by the backlog and the importance of that than the supply chain,” Lemos told the Town Hall audience. He expected lead times to remain about the same. “We have seven civil products and the situation is slightly different for each,” said Lemos. “And we are ramping up production on some products, such as the Airbus Helicopters H160.”