Rotor & Wing International
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Helicopter Operators Face a Mix of Challenges

Europe’s helicopter market adapts to shifting trends, operators face obstacles regarding rules, safety, cost, new technology, staffing and politics.

Helicopter companies in their various forms are a growth market across the world. Growth has been slightly dented by oil’s price drop and resulting cutbacks in offshore ops. But overall it remains strong and dynamic as the economic value of helicopters is recognized.

With growth comes change and new challenges, and it is important for both operators and regulators to ascertain that these are met with positive responses. While each individual part of the industry has its unique challenges, there are some that affect all helicopter operators — such as regulations, safety, cost, new technology, staffing and politics.

One challenge highlighted by most operators is regulation, with both severe rules and variations in regulatory language and application. Particularly challenging regulations include the “Age 60” rule, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) requirement for the commander to hold an Air Transport Pilot (Helicopter) license, or ATPL(H) when two pilots crew an aircraft certificated for single-pilot operations, differences in helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) operations, the use of single-engine helicopters over congested areas and the threat of drones. One commercial operator also highlighted the challenge of landing sites, where regulations varies from country to country.

In 2013, EASA received requests from some HEMS operators to increase the maximum age limit for single-pilot HEMS operators from 60 to 65 in Part-FCL operations. The agency decided not to grant this but did allow some exemptions. A study was commissioned and the debate continues over whether pilots over 60 should be allowed to fly single crew. Furthermore, as pilots over 60 can do aerial work and can work in multi-crew operations, there has been debate over the variation in regulation.

With regard to landing sites, some countries (such as France) require an “off-airfield” license. Others, such as Holland, require permission from the local police, while Italy requires written notice in advance. In the U.K., you can land anywhere with owner permission, provided safety aspects are respected. It is necessary to know which countries have which regulation, even though they are all part of EASA.

Flying safely, while still fulfilling commercial commitments, is always a challenge for operators working in difficult weather and challenging environments. Regulation, which should be always helpful, can sometimes become a challenge itself. Kevin Baines, an aviation consultant, suggested that helicopter accidents in, for example, the special environment of the North Sea, will continue no matter how stringent the regulations, unless operators look more deeply into management and human factors.

Many operators berated the cost of purchasing helicopters. But the future is looking somewhat brighter with technological improvements. So-called “fourth-generation technology” in helicopters (for example, in the AW169 and AW189) is decreasing manufacturing costs and increasing passenger comfort. Moreover, fourth-generation helicopters are easier to maintain, reducing engineering maintenance costs. They also are easier to fly, so the amount and cost of training also decrease. New technology, while possibly a challenge for pilots and aircrew to get used to in the short-term, is actually of overall benefit in the long run, as the cost both of purchasing aircraft and of running them is lower.

Dr. Simon Mitchell from Starspeed explains that “owing to these decreased costs, it may be possible for commercial operators to own the machines used by the business,” instead of the current practice of owners leasing aircraft to a company. This subsidizes the flight costs of the commercial operator, (while the latter case is beneficial financially), but does make the operator dependent on the client, rather than the other way around.

Historically, commercial companies, police and air ambulances recruited mainly from ex-military pilots who had a good, varied breadth of experience after many years of flying different types of machines in difficult and challenging circumstances. Over recent years, this trend has been declining with the reduction of government spending on military assets in Old World countries. This, plus the increase in the use of two-crew aircraft and the consequent retirement age of 65 yr old, means that many pilots currently employed are of an older age group and are reaching retirement age.

In recent years, this decline in military pilots has been partially overcome by the number of pilots trained in the oil and gas industry. Now, though, the oil and gas industry is also spending less money on aircraft and pilots, so there has been an increase in the need for companies to take on less experienced pilots and train them themselves. Some operators highlighted the need for some form of government-sponsored recruitment to alleviate the costs that fall on either the pilot or the company. That approach often results in the decision not to become a pilot, but to go into some other industry with lower initial costs. Many operators spoke of the difficulty of finding sufficiently experienced pilots and particularly on the type required. However, it was suggested that “family” aircraft, on which all machines have the same controls, is one way to ameliorate this.

So, there are benefits for helicopter operators to look forward to in terms of new technology. There are also potential changes in regulation, which need to be looked at from operators’, as well as regulators’, points of view. Furthermore, operators and regulators need to look carefully into political changes in Europe and ensure that they continue to benefit from the freedom of movement of pilots across the EU, the sharing of the best regulations and the reduction of costs where possible. How the political and regulatory changes are organized by EU governments will make a huge difference to the profitability of the helicopter industry both in Europe and around the rest of the helicopter world. R&WI