‘Back on track to sell 70 helicopters a year’


Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH) is on track to sell 70 helicopters this year, back to pre-Covid levels, according to Frederic Lemos, head of ACH. In a wide-ranging conversation, Lemos told Helicopter Investor (HI) of the manufacturers’ plans to target demand in specific sectors, such as the superyacht industry, and in particular locations.

“The helicopter market is back on track to regain its pre-Covid performance – after a very small impact last year,” said Lemos. “General helicopter business is the sector that has suffered least from Covid-19.” (Last year the manufacturer booked 62 aircraft compared with 65 to 70 helicopters a year before the pandemic).

The reason is that 80% of ACH’s clients are private individuals, he told HI. Sitting beside the new Airbus ACH145, fitted with five-blade rotor, on top of the Yacht Club de Monaco during the Monaco Yacht Show, Lemos explained in more detail the impact of the pandemic.

Although some business aviation operators suffer when there is an economic downturn, private individuals can be impacted or not depending on the industries in which they operate, he said. While helicopter tourism had taken a hit during the pandemic, some other sectors – such as pharmaceuticals – have benefited from the Covid crisis.

“Since 80% of our clients are private individuals, they have opportunities for wealth in a lot of sectors,” said Lemos. “Also, during the [Covid-19] confinement crisis, people realised that helicopters help you to reach more easily places to isolate.” That meant helicopters were in demand for transport of high net worth individuals to villas and to yachts.

The superyacht sector is of particular interest to ACH. The manufacturer is tracking about 70 build projects featuring yachts of 100m or larger, at which size helipads can be considered. “In this niche market (for us), ACH is selling regularly seven to eight aircraft a year,” said Lemos. “We estimate we hold almost 70% of the market share.”

Popular models for this market are the H135 light twin helicopter and H145, now with the new five-bladed rotor. The H135 has a D value [a measure of the largest overall dimension of the helicopter when rotors are turning] of just 12m. “This is the smallest footprint in the world for a twin-engine helicopter,” said Lemos. “Yacht owners choose it because it’s very reliable and has a low maintenance requirement. So, clients can go to sea for eight months without the need for heavy maintenance or to bring an engineer with them.”

Yacht owners are increasingly realising what a helicopter can bring to their lifestyles, he added. One example is ice-breaker support vessels designed to cruise to very remote locations. Visiting the interior can depend on a helicopter’s ability to land on an unprepared landing ground.

Helicopter transport to shore is also becoming important in more familiar waters, as competition for moorings intensifies or becomes less readily available, said Lemos. “There are not so many ports that the 100m-plus superyacht can access easily. And when they do remain offshore, it’s a big-time saver if clients want to visit a vineyard or a restaurant.”

Airbus Helicopters revealed at an earlier Monaco show that it is to provide the on-board helicopter – an ACH145 – for the REV Ocean research and expedition vessel – the world’s largest superyacht. The 600ft (183m) vessel is the flagship of Norwegian businessman and philanthropist Kjell Inge Røkke’s not-for-profit oceanic research foundation, which shares the vessel’s name.

In fact, ACH reports a big increase in new buyers – mainly in the light single engine helicopter market. About 40% to 50% of ACH clients are known to the manufacturer and are returning to renew their fleet.

Airbus, as a global manufacturer, is making big investments in sustainable technology like all OEMs. While there are technical barriers to overcome in the helicopter sector, already all Airbus Helicopters are certified to run on a mix of as much as 50% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). “Our clients are increasingly sensitive to the topic and are looking to us bringing solutions to this challenge,” said Lemos. SAF is just the first response, which can be implemented relatively quickly, he added.

Turning to key markets, Lemos said infrastructural support would be key to exploiting the total addressable market for helicopters. For example, on the one hand China has witnessed the rapid growth of personal wealth, “with exponential growth in the number of billionaires”. But the infrastructure and ecosystem to support flights was not yet in place, he said. “It’s very difficult to buy and fly a helicopter in China because the airspace ecosystem and regulations are not in place. Until this is unleashed, it is very difficult for someone to possess and operate a helicopter.”

Brazil was “the extreme opposite” where everything was in place – including the ecosystem and maintenance facilities – to facilitate helicopter ownership and operation. ACH’s top three markets now, and for the foreseeable future, will be North America, Brazil and Europe – with western, central and eastern Europe being the market’s main drivers.

Asked about the legacy of Covid-19, Lemos paused. While acknowledging the difficulty of predicting anything, he thought the pandemic would have a powerful and lasting impact. “High Net Worth Individuals will realise that they need escape places and escape tools such as helicopters. Scientists have warned the pandemic could be repeated along the decades. So, people will understand the helicopter could be an interesting tool – and interesting asset – to have.”