Last week I took part in an industry panel at HeliOps 2015 – a gathering of the UK helicopter industry, held at The London Heliport in Battersea.
I was there to talk about trends in helicopter charter – sharing my experience and views from PrivateFly. It was a really stimulating day, an opportunity to consider how helicopters fit into the wider charter industry, and what challenges helicopter operators are facing in the current climate.
At PrivateFly we offer helicopter charter as a standalone aircraft option for short journeys and as an additional transfer service for clients travelling by fixed wing (private jet or turboprop) aircraft.
There’s no doubt that the helicopter is an incredibly efficient mode of transport – in either case.
Contact our Flight Team on +44 1747 642 777 for a standalone private helicopter charter quote – or to discuss combining your private jet flight with a helicopter transfer.
Flexibility and the ability to land in more remote spots make the helicopter a fast and efficient way to reach a wide range of destinations, including remote spots and ski resorts.
Or sometimes to avoid ground-based traffic jams from the airport. Especially during major events, such as the Cannes Film Festival and at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix – when Cranfield Airport becomes the world’s busiest helicopter landing site.
And of course a helicopter’s low flying altitude and ability to hover also makes it the perfect vehicle for an airborne sightseeing flight – popular with leisure clients as a gift or special occasion charter.
But from an industry perspective, selling helicopter charter can more challenging than flights in fixed wing (private jet and turboprop) charter. And that was a focus of discussion amongst the HeliOpps 2015 panel.
What are the challenges for helicopter charter operators?
Whilst there are many private jet operators that own their own fleet or have a blend of owner-managed within their fleet, this model does not work for helicopters. The cost of maintenance of a helicopter – relative to its purchase price – is much higher than the maintenance costs on a private jet. So if a helicopter is operated purely for charter, the hourly rates that would need to be charged (to balance the costs) would be way above what customers would be prepared to pay.
The only way helicopter charter works financially for an operator, is for a third party owner to bear the fixed costs of maintenance. As we discussed on the panel, these maintenance costs aren’t likely to reduce in the foreseeable future. So helicopter charter is dependent on a model where the owner uses the aircraft some of the time, and then releases spare capacity when they are not using it.
And the growth of the industry is dependent on attracting more private owners, who are prepared to take on ownership of helicopters.
But this isn’t always easy. As owners are taking their helicopters further afield around the globe, the MRO (Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul) infrastructure isn’t as widespread as many owners would like. This has been a limiting factor in expanding charter models of operation.
Why don’t all private jet companies offer helicopter charter?
Not all private jet booking services – or brokers – offer helicopter charter, despite its advantages to the customer.
A high proportion of helicopter enquiries don’t go on to convert to a booking. But at PrivateFly we can provide customers with an estimated price at the time of enquiry. Many of these enquiries are for special occasion charter, such as weddings, which don’t go on to become a booking.
By contrast, conversion rates of enquiries for fixed wing aircraft charter are much higher across the industry.
But a certain number of clients who book helicopters will go on to book a private jet charter at a later date – around 25% of them at PrivateFly. So if we can make it more efficient to sell helicopter charter, then it can be a good way of attracting new customers to the wider private aviation industry.
More transparency & communication is needed
In addition to encouraging more private owners to see the commercial opportunities, the panel concluded that helicopter end users find it confusing and complex to arrange charter. There is little price transparency and a sense that helicopter customers need to be better educated about safety. It’s surprising that the age of helicopters is not such a significant factor to a charter customer, as it is in the private jet sector. Whilst Wyvern and Argus safety ratings help to get a safety message across to customers, these important, optional certificates are very expensive for operators who are not focussed on charter operations.
So more efficiency and better communication with all customer groups is required. The helicopter sector urgently needs to communicate the attractions of helicopter ownership, taking away the pain of ownership and make it fun!
And operators need to find more business efficient ways of selling helicopter charter, which will benefit them commercially and provide more transparency to the end user. The wider private aviation industry is moving towards technology-based solutions to improve efficiency, so the helicopter charter industry can follow.
Find out more about our helicopter charter services. Or contact our Flight Team on +44 1747 642 777 for a personalised helicopter charter quote or to discuss combining your private jet flight with a helicopter transfer.