HI Uplift: Blueberry Aviation builds on last year’s $88m asset acquisition


Demand for VIP flights in helicopters, like this AW139, is increasing, says Blueberry Aviation. (Photo credit: Blueberry Aviation).

After closing last year with a record $88m of purchased assets, Blueberry Aviation sold 12 helicopters in the first quarter of 2024 – its 21st year. Nickel and brass are commonly associated with 21st anniversaries, but the company is more focused with selling the aluminium alloys of helicopter fuselages, as it aims to build on its total combined tally of more than 550-unit transactions since its launch.

Last year the company closed helicopter deals with more than 290 customers worldwide. And it expects to significantly add to that total in helicopter markets worldwide this year.

Helicopters perform a unique range of key missions that cannot – at present – be discharged by other aircraft types, says François Gautier, founder and CEO of Blueberry Aviation. Whether it is VIP helicopter transport, emergency medical services (EMS), search and rescue (SAR), fire-fighting services or other para-public missions, helicopters play an increasingly important role.

‘The energy market’ 

“The energy market is extremely active and the VIP helicopter market continues to perform very well,” he tells Helicopter Investor. But it remains to be seen if the relatively slow EMS market will improve over the year ahead in particular led by replacement programmes. All this adds up to demand that should remain stable in the mid to long term, he says.

A key driver of VIP helicopters sales is accumulating wealth worldwide, according to Blueberry. Timely evidence was supplied this week via the Forbes World’s Billionaires List. It identified a record 2,781 billionaires for 2024. That is 141 more than 2023 and 26 more than the previous record year of 2021. Forbes concluded the very rich were growing richer, boasting a total combined wealth of $14.2trn (£11.3trn). Forbes did not identify helicopter ownership within its lists but Gautier is encouraged by the trend.

“More helicopters are being bought but moreover, the customer base is growing with more and more individuals accessing high spending power,” he tells us. “These individuals aspire to access the effort-free lifestyle of which helicopters are an important element. And since the Covid crisis, HNWIs have got used to travelling privately which has become synonymous with freedom of movement and efficiency.”

Supply chain challenges

But the supply of new civil helicopters is constrained by limitations on manufacturers’ output due to burgeoning demand for military aircraft and continuing supply chain challenges. Gautier expects little, if any, short-term improvement in the availability of new helicopters, with manufacturers seemingly more focused on long-term, lucrative military contracts rather than civil ones. Acquisition costs have risen and the lead time to acquire a new model can extend up to two years.

It’s a landscape that has favoured the growth of pre-owned helicopters. Due to manufacturers’ long lead times and tightening demand for quality pre-owned assets, Blueberry has noted rising prices. “Our challenge is to find the right assets at the right price for clients worldwide,” he adds. “We need to find the right capacity for clients when and where they need it.”

Rising interest rates have not made that task any easier but Blueberry Aviation does not regard it as a major impediment to sales. “Though some high-value asset market lease rates have been impacted by higher interest rates, we do not see this having an effect on our customer base, their assets or their spending capacity,” he says. “However, with the increase in lead-times for new aircraft, we see demand in the pre-owned market remaining strong throughout the year.”

Gearboxes and engine parts

Supply chain difficulties remain a challenge – having the double whammy effect in both lengthening lead times and lifting prices. Gautier expects lead times and supply challenges – including key parts such as main gearboxes and engine parts – will become, if anything, worse this year.

Blueberry Aviation is also active in commercial fixed-wing sales. It boasts a track record of more than $3.5bn of moved fixed-wing assets to date. Switching the focus from commercial aircraft to business jets, Gautier detects a growing appetite for helicopter travel among business jet owners and passengers. “There is a symbiotic relationship between jets and helicopters within our customer base,” he tells us. “Rather than the two contending, most of our VIP customers see the two going hand-in-hand to render a turnkey travel solution.”

The latest avionic and safety developments are making helicopters safer year-on-year and manufacturers are doing a good job of communicating these technical evolutions, he tells us. “On the whole, our customers are already convinced of their need of a helicopter and it’s well known that most top-level VIP and presidential functions in the world use them on a daily basis.”

Hybrid tiltwing aircraft

It’s not just helicopters and commercial aircraft that occupy Gautier’s business planning. After starting with Airbus in 1988 and founding Blueberry Aviation in 2003, Gautier has worked on, bought and sold hundreds of different aircraft. Two years ago, he added hybrid tiltwing aircraft to that long list of designs. Blueberry Aviation signed a global partnership agreement with Swiss hybrid vertical aircraft manufacturer Dufour Aerospace. Dufour is building the Aero2 drone with a 40kg payload and three-hour range.

The startup is also working on a passenger version, Aero3. Blueberry Aviation has pledged to buy 100 Aero2 and 100 Aero3 aircraft. It is also advising Dufour Aerospace on its global marketing.

Meanwhile, read more about Gautier’s views on the VIP helicopter market in the latest edition of our sister title Corporate Jet Investor Quarterly.

François Gautier has bought and sold hundreds of different aircraft.

HI Uplift Dashboard: Helicopters for sale

Multi engine

  • Total for sale/lease: 310 – two fewer than last week
  • Percentage for sale/lease: 4.11
  • Absorption rate: 5.2
  • Total fleet: 7,534 – six more than last week.

Single engine

  • Total for sale/lease: 404 – three fewer than last week
  • Percentage for sale/lease: 3.49
  • Absorption rate: 4.01
  • Total fleet: 11,579 – six more than last week.

      Source: AMSTAT, April 4th, 2024.