European Helicopter Market Bounces Back – AIN

While fixed-wing commercial air transport in Europe was severely hit by the global Covid-19 pandemic, the helicopter industry has been coping well, experts agree. The European helicopter market, in line with the wider global economy, did feel the effects of the pandemic in early-to-mid 2020. However, that impact was minimal compared to the commercial fixed-wing market, observes Christopher Grainger v-p of marketing for the European, Middle East, and Africa regions at LCI Helicopters (Booth 11348). “Since then the market has bounced back strongly, particularly in the emergency medical services [EMS], search and rescue [SAR], offshore wind, and corporate/VIP sectors,” Grainger said. “Once again, helicopters have proven their resilience during difficult times, due in large part to the mission-critical nature of the roles they perform.”

Thomas Hütsch, CEO of Belgium-based helicopter operator NHV Group, noted that offshore oil and gas projects were under pressure since world oil prices collapsed in 2014. “With the recent recovery of those oil prices, we do expect an increasing demand for helicopter services in the months and years to come. However, margins will remain low because of the overcapacity in aircraft,” he said.

The offshore renewables sector will continue to grow but cannot make up for the decline in oil and gas projects yet, Hütsch added. “SAR and EMS missions were mostly affected by the pandemic in the very beginning of the health crisis during the strict lockdowns. They have recovered well and will probably be the subject of increasing demand in the European market.”

Other types of helicopter operations like tourism flights and flight training suffered significantly, according to Christian Mueller, chairman and technical director of the European Helicopter Association (EHA, Booth 7319). “In these areas, it was very difficult or impossible to maintain the required level of protection against Covid-19. Also, priorities of pilot candidates and travelers shifted,” he said. “Usually, helicopter operators combine a number of operations under their certificate, so it was possible to compensate to a certain degree.”

Offshore Wind Sector

The offshore wind sector is also growing rapidly, encouraged by environmental, social, and governance initiatives throughout the European continent, affirmed Grainger. “Currently, the utilization of helicopters to transport crew and equipment offshore is limited by competition with crew transfer vessels, but to quote Air & Sea Analytics’ Offshore Wind Rotorcraft Market Review and Forecast 2021-2030, ‘the available data on windfarm operations tell a clear story: The helicopter is faster, safer for the passengers, and less harmful to the environment than a crew transfer vessel while being less susceptible to interruption in service through bad weather,’” he said.

As a result, Air & Sea Analytics expects nearly a hundred additional aircraft to be active in offshore wind by 2030, said Grainger. “The tourism, oil, and gas sectors were hardest hit by the pandemic. However, we are seeing positive signs of recovery for the latter, as oil prices have steadily increased in recent months,” he added.

Fleet Modernization

The renewal of helicopter fleets started five to seven years ago and will continue during the next five years, Hütsch stated. “Technological advancements and flight performance (modern avionics, autopilot, composite materials, etc.) are the main drivers behind the modernization process,” he noted. “And as fuel is a major cost for operators, lighter helicopters (especially 4/6-tonne class aircraft) have become more popular in an attempt to reduce fuel consumption.”

Yet, in the last two years, the appetite for large investments has been subdued, observed Mueller. “We have not seen significant fleet change. We hope that this will adjust as there are still a significant number of legacy aircraft without the latest protection measures (e.g., fuel tanks) flying,” he said.

According to Mueller, there are also some factors that may limit the appetite for investing in newer helicopters. “Smaller operators are sometimes faced with regulatory requirements to use simulators for training and checking that would put significant financial burdens on them,” he acknowledged. “They would rather stay with the older models to avoid that. That being said, regulation will eventually force fleet change that will provide a higher level of safety and efficiency as well as being a more modern workplace for crews.”

Mario Pierobon

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