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Airbus Helicopters has celebrated its 50th anniversary of activity in the United States, holding a special celebration for employees, customers, and government officials at its North American headquarters in Grand Prairie, Texas.
This year also marks the company’s 35th anniversary in Canada (with its headquarters in Fort Erie, Ontario), and 15 years of activity at its facility in Columbus, Mississippi.
The manufacturer traces its roots in North America to the signing of a partnership between Aérospatiale and Vought Helicopters, a Texas-based company, in 1969. (Aérospatiale merged with the helicopter division of Deutsche Aerospace to form Airbus Helicopters, then known as Eurocopter, in 1992.) The agreement with Vought saw the company authorized to sell and support Aérospatiale helicopters in the United States and Canada at a time when there were 17 Aérospatiale aircraft flying in North America. The company had just 43 employees.
Aérospatiale took full control of Vought Helicopters in 1974, and changed the company’s name to Aérospatiale Helicopters Corp. in 1976.
Today, there are 2,600 Airbus helicopters flying with over 800 civilian operators in North America (and more than 500 of the manufacturer’s helicopters in the military), and the company has over 1,000 employees in the region.
Indeed, the U.S. is home to the largest fleet of commercial Airbus helicopters flying in the world, with the second largest fleet belonging in Canada. Eight of Airbus’s top 10 customers (in terms of flight hours) are based in North America.
During a media visit ahead of the anniversary celebrations, Romain Trapp, president of Airbus Helicopters, Inc. (the official name of the company’s U.S. subsidiary) pointed to the company’s win of a U.S. Coast Guard contract for 100 HH-65 Dauphins in 1979 as being a “gamechanger” for its operations in the region.
The contract was the start of a long-term relationship between Airbus and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; in addition to the Dauphins flying with the Coast Guard, the company has 100 H125s and H120s in operation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It also has more than 440 UH-72 Lakotas flying with the U.S. Army.
The win of the contract for the latter — which began as an order for 345 Lakotas in 2006 — was the second gamechanger for the company’s North American branch, said Trapp. It resulted in Airbus tripling the size of its recently-opened Columbus facility, and significantly increasing its activities in Grand Prairie.
Trapp said the upcoming certification and first deliveries of Airbus’s new-generation medium H160 would be the next landmark event for the company in the region. The type is scheduled for certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) by the end of 2019, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set to follow a few months afterwards. Deliveries will start before the end of 2020, with one of the first customers being in North America.
“In the past, our helicopters have dominated the light helicopter segment of the market . . . but the medium size of the market has been for a long time our weakness,” said Trapp, adding that he thought the H160 would fill a need the company has identified for major fleet renewal in the medium-lift sector.
“Just as an example, in the Northeast of the United States you have about 80 medium [private and corporate] helicopters that need to be replaced,” he said. “Right now the customers are waiting to replace them with the right aircraft, and we are bringing on the market a gamechanger in that regard. A completely newly-designed aircraft with new technologies, with various innovations which I believe will make this helicopter the aircraft of choice for the medium-size market in North America. I strongly believe it is going to be our bestseller in the years to come.”
Those technologies include a fully composite airframe, a biplane horizontal stabilizer, a tilted Fenestron tail rotor, and Airbus’s Blue Edge main rotor blades, which feature a swept back blade tip. These various elements combine to provide enhanced performance and a reduction in the aircraft’s noise signature — a particularly appealing mix for those in the private and business aviation sector.
Trapp said most of the demand for the type thus far has been in this sector and from those working in emergency medical services, with offshore oil-and-gas likely to be the third main market, once that sector rebounds.
A couple of years ago, the company completed a restructuring of its organization in North America, merging its activities and creating specialization at each of its three main sites. Columbus became the center of excellence for aircraft assembly (it contains final assembly lines for the H125 and Lakota) and customization; Fort Erie is a center of excellence for the manufacturing of composite parts (used across the Airbus Group); and Grand Prairie is home to the design office, sales and marketing teams, and the support and services center of excellence.
“Thanks to this site specialization, we have been able to offer better service to our customers, and do the activity . . . in a more efficient way,” said Trapp.
He added that the reorganization didn’t result in a headcount reduction — as is often the case. “Our workforce in North America actually increased overall,” he said. “By creating more efficiencies we have been able to better support our customer, [and] when you better support your customer, actually you win more customers.”
So, despite a general industry downturn, Airbus expects to generate just under $1 billion of revenue in North America in 2019. According to the company’s figures, it claimed a market share of 76 percent of all helicopter orders for aircraft of five or more seats in North America in 2018, and delivered 72 percent of helicopters of that size in the region.
“What we have seen is a significant decrease of the overall market, while at the same time our market share . . . has significantly increased,” said Trapp.
The company had a global sales peak of 330 aircraft in 2008, and another high point of 300 in 2013. After a drop in the following years, it rebounded to 260 last year. Trapp said the key has been attracting new customers, which have represented 40 percent of sales in North America since 2013. This compares to a “traditional” figure of about 15 percent.
These new customers have largely been from within the private and business aviation sector (which represented 30 percent of the company’s overall bookings in 2018), and are mostly people who are entirely new to helicopters. However, Airbus has also succeeded in attracting customers who are simply new to its types.
One of the main reasons for the dip in the overall market has been the downturn in the oil-and-gas sector.
“The [offshore transport] industry has, to a large extent, collapsed in the last few years,” said Trapp. “It’s definitely facing major headwinds . . . which has impacted the entire industry — all the OEMs.”
He added that demand is still very low, with several offshore transport operators either facing a chapter 11 bankruptcy process, undergoing one, or having recently emerged from it.
“We don’t expect a recovery in this [offshore] industry actually for the next few years,” said Trapp. “This industry still needs some consolidation and needs to become healthy again.”
According to Will Fulton, head of marketing in North America, the oil-and-gas downturn is forcing operators to change their focus.
“The way that oil-and-gas used to operate is on just oil-and-gas. Just oil-and-gas isn’t working anymore,” he said. These operators are increasingly looking at applying their expertise of operating large aircraft in austere environments to government support contracts around the world, he said.
Similary, Airbus has been busily repurposing its H225 heavy for a new life. “We know it’s not going directly back into oil-and-gas,” said Fulton. “It’s not picking up as quickly as everyone said they thought it [would] . . . and therefore, [we’re] putting it into other modes.”
These new modes include aerial firefighting, said Fulton, which he said had a need for fleet modernization, as well as a growing interest in utilizing larger airframes.
Fulton also revealed that Airbus has “re-engaged” discussions with the FAA for certification of the H175, following renewed interest in the type in North America. The type was certified by EASA in 2014, but its anticipated approval by the FAA wasn’t pursued as the offshore market nosedived. The reignited interest has largely been driven by the private/corporate sector, said Fulton, with operators in the Northeast of the U.S. particularly keen to see the type certified.
In terms of the new five-bladed H145, Airbus has already received an undisclosed number of orders for the retrofit kit from operators in North America. For customers in the region, Airbus will perform the retrofit either at its facility in Columbus, or at one of its service centers.