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"Public Enemy?" - Flight Article
Written by Researcher   
Saturday, 02 June 2007
An informative, and encouraging, article that really is worth the read.


Europe's corporate helicopter industry is being severely constrained by pressure from local residents and the environmental lobbyThe heliport at Cannes Mandelieu business aviation airport is set to close next March, following complaints from the area's residents over noise. The closure represents the twelfth such loss in 15 years of a licensed landing site on France's Côte d'Azur, Europe's busiest corporate helicopter charter market. These heliport closures highlight the most serious problem facing the European industry, a problem that has led to corporate charter representing a far smaller proportion of civilian helicopter operation that in other parts of the world, says the European Helicopter Association (EHA).

Lack of growth in the corporate helicopter charter market in Europe is due in part to persistent environmental challenges. So while the USA, for example, forecasts expansion as it starts to recover from the two main effects of the September 2001 terrorist attacks - the closure of city-centre landing sites and the economic slump - in Europe, green issues could cause the market to shrink. The problem is almost entirely noise related. Nice airport, the continent's busiest commercial heliport, has recorded a drop in traffic over the past few years, with 2001's figure of around 53,000 movements down by 11% on 2000 - although traffic has started to grow again this summer.

However, further growth depends on getting local politicians to listen to the economic case for helicopters, rather than to just a few vociferous residents, says Ren‚ Koehl, airlines representative manager and heliport administrator at Nice airport.

Further up the coast, even Monaco's heliport is not immune, despite its importance as the tiny principality's only airport. Around 3Ha (7.5 acres) of land were reclaimed in 1977 in Fontvielle, near Monte Carlo, primarily to accommodate the heliport, although residential property development followed. Henri Bayol, head of the SACM, Monaco's civil aviation authority, which runs the heliport, says: "Even though they bought their apartments in full knowledge of the heliport's existence, there are still complaints." Monaco's parliament is considering plans to add sound-proof walls or move the heliport to another location, possibly even an offshore platform. "We risk losing our competitive advantage with either option," Bayol adds.


Aware that the public's perception of helicopters as being excessively noisy threatened the growth of activity on the Côte d'Azur, Nice airport created a helicopter coalition in 2000. The 10-spot heliport was completed the same year. This grouping brought the region's charter companies and heliport operators together with manufacturers AgustaWestland and Eurocopter to work on ways to counter the anti-noise lobby.

The coalition recently held its second major forum, but its members are still engaged in a rear guard action. "Our priority at the moment is to fight against further closures, but ultimately we need more heliports to meet the demand," says Koehl.

Annie-Claire Benchimol, president and director-general of Nice Hélicoptères, says her company's dream is to develop regular services on a network of heliports between Menton on the Italian border and Toulon. Nice Hélicoptères has commissioned economic impact assessments pointing to direct and indirect employment of over 2,000 people, as well as benefits for the congested road transport system, but she says politicians remain unconvinced: "Except here in Nice, the authorities are not interested - not even the chambers of commerce."As a result, business potential remains untapped, and destinations including the Silicon Valley-style high technology firms outside Cannes and inland ski resorts, where landing permission is rarely granted, remain badly served, says Koehl.But the Nice helicopter coalition has started work to change perceptions. Noise analysis from a series of tests in St Tropez, for example, is due to be released by independent auditors later this month, and is likely to overturn earlier assessments that led to the closure of the town's licensed helipad in 1998. Operators say those initial tests, taken early one January morning, did not take into account the ambient noise from cars, music and people, typical of July and August.

In addition, research by the major helicopter manufacturers into noise reduction technology is beginning to bear fruit in the form of new "silent types". Stéphanie Micheau, commercial manager of Monaco-based charter operator Monacair, says that since it introduced its Eurocopter EC120 Colibri, hoteliers in nearby châteaux are no longer disturbed by guests arriving by helicopter. "They barely hear it," she adds. Koehl says further research to reduce descent noise is fundamental to the industry's survival.

London's problem

Of Europe's key business centres, London has a particularly acute problem. Battersea has the city's only heliport. Although only 5km (3 miles) west of London's commercial centre, it is 12km from London's main financial district. "When the car journey to the heliport can take 40min on a good day, you have to wonder how many more passengers would use helicopters if there were alternative sites," says David McRobert, chief executive of PremiAir, adding that demand could double if there were a helipad closer to London's financial district. A site earmarked for heliport development by a UK transport ministry study was blocked on environmental grounds, and landing rights at London City Airport in the new financial district of Docklands expressly exclude rotary traffic, says McRobert.

Dick Whidborne, chief executive of the British Helicopter Advisory Board (BHAB), says the corporate helicopter charter market has suffered from London's lack of heliports, but barring a review of landing rights at London City at next year's lease renewal, the BHAB hopes are pinned on working for the inclusion of a helipad as part of the development of St Pancras station for high speed train services, due for competition later this decade.

Landing rights at Europe's major hubs, such as Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt Main and Paris Charles de Gaulle, are also constrained, limiting the possibility of scheduled shuttle services, like those in the USA. Europe has only two economically viable helicopter airlines. Copperline runs a service across the Baltic Sea between Helsinki, Finland, and Tallin, Estonia, catering for business traffic; and Heli Air Monaco, which runs 54 services most days between Nice and Monaco. Last year, the company and French carrier HéliFrance (which has since abandoned the route) carried more than 130,000 passengers. At c69 ($73) for a one-way ticket, the fare is cheaper than a taxi on the 15km journey, and at least 30min quicker, the company says.

Prices could fall on other routes if the helicopter companies were allowed to operate, says the EHA. European charter companies face operational restrictions unknown in the rest of the world. Flight paths, for example, are usually much longer, with direct line-of-sight routes uncommon in towns. The European Joint Aviation Authorities' chapter three operating regulations (JAR-OPS 3) state that only twin-engined helicopters can fly over urban areas or major roads. As a result, flights often follow the sometimes circuitous course of rivers, necessitating the fitting and certification of floats.

One example of the impact of the new rules is at Sophia-Antipolis heliport, lying around 1km inland from the Côte D'Azur, closed several years ago due to new rules on single-engine helicopters. However, most Nice operators continue to favour single-engine types, which can only fly over the sea, and pilots have perfected manoeuvres to avoid popular beaches and make vertical rather than shallow descents to minimise noise further.

The single-engine preference is common across the continent, says the EHA. Operators are mainly interested in twins for flying night flights or instrument approaches into airports. However, some life insurance companies are pushing for twin-engined only operations, claiming their clients' safety is more secure with two engines.

Robert Aracil, chief of operations for Heli Air Monaco, based in Fontevielle, disagrees, however. The scheduled carrier does own one Eurocopter EC355N Dauphin, used for aerial photography work and for private charters inland, to comply with JAR-OPS 3, but would resist any further push by European authorities towards full twin-engined operations. "In the USA 10 years ago, they moved towards banning single-engine helicopters and encountered a lot of problems. They have found twins are not necessarily safer than singles, and the cost to passengers would double," he says.

Stricter enforcement

Europe is also stricter in its application of visual flight rules, which translates into more days lost to bad weather, says Whidborne. As a result, in winter helicopters often find themselves restricted to airfield-to-airfield flights where there are instrument approaches, losing some of the competitive advantage. Micheau says that although few flights along the Mediterranean coast suffer from poor weather, "having to cancel even one flight due to weather is embarrassing". In contrast, the situation in northern Europe is particularly difficult, with military blade deicing technology not yet available for lighter civilian types. Eurocopter, however, is making advances with its HTT all-weather helicopter prototype, while other manufacturers are conducting similar studies. The use of satellite navigation systems is also being investigated, and such initiatives should free operators from weather and visibility constraints, says Whidborne. "The technology is there, but it needs to come into service," he adds.

One of the core challenges for helicopter charter operators has been to lose the tag of "rich person's plaything", says McRobert; the company he runs, PremiAir, is one of two principal players in the UK market (the other being Stansted-based Air Harrods). Based in Denham, just outside London, PremiAir has launched a series of presentations to businesses to convince them of the value of helicopter business travel. "Top executives shy away from visiting their sites around the country due to the hassle of using road, rail and airline connections. Using helicopters, there is the possibility of landing very close to all a business's facilities," he adds.

Charles Schmitt of the EHA says most corporate helicopter use comes from businesses or individuals who own their own aircraft. As with fixed-wing air travel, these owners use aircraft management companies to charter downtime and recoup some of their costs. "Virtually every holder of helicopter aircraft operators' certificates is involved" in this activity, he says.

PremiAir, along with Paris Porte-de-sèvres heliport-based AviAxess, is also offering corporations charter hours in blocks to provide price stability similar to fractional ownership programmes. Unlike fixed-wing, however, there is little demand for cross-border chartering, and so, for now, there is minimal competition between operators in different countries.

Furthermore, the EHA says publicising such programmes will be difficult, since helicopter users are even more publicity shy than private-jet travellers. PremiAir's aircraft are branded "discreetly" says McRobert, allowing the businessman to prove the helicopter is chartered, rather than on the company's books, while retaining the privacy demanded by celebrities.

In part, PremiAir is embarking on its marketing drive to counter the seasonal distortions that plague the business. The company can go from around 250 movements a month during the middle of the year, flying leisure passengers to sporting events and social engagements, to about 50 a month in January. But McRobert also talks of emulating fixed-wing fractional ownership pioneer NetJets in spreading the word of the value of helicopter travel. "Chartering a helicopter is not the cheapest thing in the world, but what value can you put on board-level executives' time?" he asks.

Nice Hélicoptères and other Côte d'Azur operators, such as ValAir and Héli Securité, are less affected by seasonal changes, as business traffic replaces leisure bookings in the first and final quarters along the coast's convention strip, says Benchimol. There is, however, one annual event that challenges all operators: the Monaco Grand Prix. This year there were 4,371 movements over the June weekend, with 995 on race day itself. However, these figures were down by around 20% on 2002, and 35% on 2001, partly as a result of requests by SACM to use larger types and double fares, says Bayol.

Operators had to lease larger types, such as the Sikorsky S-76 or an AgustaWestland A109 Power, and ran into difficulties as there are few on European registers. As NetJets and other fixed-wing schemes found, owners in Europe tend to have a more functional approach to aircraft use. "Many customers here will use a Eurocopter Twin Squirrel where US customers ask for an S-76," says McRobert. "Customers here seem to be more cost-conscious and less status-oriented than in the USA," he adds.

Even for Monacair, which flies Monaco's royal family, there can be a struggle to convince passengers that added luxury is worth paying for. The company operates an AS350B1 Squirrel and an AS365N Dauphin, in addition to its Colibri, all configured in VIP interiors. "On services to Nice, where there is a scheduled service, we have to keep our prices in line with the passenger transport-configured Squirrels, to retain our customers for other destinations. But when we have to subcontract those same aircraft if we are at full capacity, our customers grumble about the lack of air conditioning or fabric seats," she says.

Yet even if status is not paramount, convenience is. PremiAir has seven operations staff responsible for obtaining landing permission if unlicensed helipads or fields are used, and for transferring passengers to their final destination. "In theory, the great advantage should be that the helicopter is A-to-B transport, but in reality, we have to arrange transport each end, and everything else all within 1h," says McRobert. For example, one customer, locked out of his shooting lodge and unable to organise a car to pick up replacement business clothes chartered a helicopter to get him to a Concorde flight from London Heathrow to New York's Kennedy where he could change.On a more mundane level, Côte D'Azur operators have had to keep a small fleet of shuttle buses in St Tropez to ferry passengers from the field that has doubled as helipad since the closure of the town's licensed heliport. But despite all the inconveniences facing customers, Nice Hélicoptères Benchimol points to one factor that guarantees the service's survival: "Helicopters are like an addictive drug. It's very difficult to stop once you've taken it once."  
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