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A look ahead for the vertical-lift industry with HAI’s James Viola

By Jen Nevans

Published on: February 25, 2024
Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 59 seconds.

Ahead of the annual Heli-Expo tradeshow, Vertical sat down with James Viola, president and CEO of Helicopter Association International (HAI), to discuss key issues in the sector, priorities for 2024, and changes on the horizon.

For several years, Heli-Expo has been the must-attend show for anyone working in vertical-lift aviation — and this year will be no different.

With about 630 exhibitors and nearly 60 helicopters on display, the event will provide helicopter industry professionals with 34 education courses, 65 rotor safety challenge presentations, and 31 manufacturer technical briefings.

The tradeshow is often the home to some of the industry’s biggest announcements, with companies using the event’s major attendance as a backdrop to showcase their achievements. And it’s no secret that Helicopter Association International (HAI) has a major announcement of its own, with plans to use the tradeshow to unveil its new brand.

Ahead of the annual tradeshow, Vertical sat down with the head of HAI, James Viola, to discuss key issues in the sector, priorities for 2024, and changes on the horizon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

James Viola, president and CEO of HAI, addressing the crowd during the fly-in at Heli-Expo 2024 in Anaheim, California. Brent Bundy Photo

Vertical: What are you most excited about for this year’s Heli-Expo event, and what are some of the key topics that attendees will be talking about on the floor?

James Viola: The biggest thing this year is it’s our 75th anniversary, and we’re actually having Heli-Expo in Anaheim where we started 75 years ago. It’s almost like a homecoming celebration for us.

Right off the bat, one of the hot topics this year is workforce development — not only for pilots but for mechanics and engineers. We, as an association, started a new workforce development working group to figure out best practices to get people to come into this line of work. We don’t want our members competing with each other for the workforce.

The second one is cost of insurance. It’s really putting some people out of business. We’re trying to figure out how we can work with the insurance groups and what we can do as an association to try to help. We have an insurance workforce working group as well. They’ll both be meeting in Anaheim this week.

Vertical: Changing gears, can you highlight some of the key activities that the association has been involved in over the last year?

James Viola: What we finalized over the last year was sustainable aviation fuel [SAF]. We were able to make sure that all participants of Heli-Expo are using it because we want to be a leader in that area. Being able to actually get SAF for our people who are coming to the show, it was important to the association.

On the safety side of the house, we were certainly working with some of the issues with the aviation bill in the United States, trying to get Congress to move issues forward and make sure that we’re not going to overregulate and hurt industry. That’s been a pretty daily activity for our government affairs team.

The other one would be collaboration with our members. We want to do more for our members than just bringing everybody together one time a year at the show. Throughout the year, how can we do more and bring value to our members?

We’re definitely moving in the right direction on the international side. When I was hired, we were told to put the “I” in HAI — international. As an association, we’re trying to show that we are international, and we can give our members the ability to be international as well. We are the show providers for European Rotors, and we had a great show in Madrid last year. We look forward to having the show in Amsterdam this year.

HAI president and CEO James Viola with president of Robinson Helicopter Company Kurt Robinson. Brent Bundy Photo

Vertical: Looking ahead to 2024, what are some of your top priorities?

James Viola: As an association, we do have a five-year strategic plan that we’re working from, and we’ll give an industry update on that at Heli-Expo. We’d really like to figure out workforce development. I think the advocacy and education work we do are two key things that we’re proud of as we move forward for our next 75 years.

We’ve been moving the needle on helicopter safety, and we can further improve safety with the new helicopters that are actually more complex than some of the airliners out there. They will bring that additional level of safety once we get them through the certification process.

Another big concern right now is what’s going on with the overflight of national parks. Tour operators are one of the big growth areas for workforce development. A tour operator flies three or four tours a day. That’s a good time-building for new pilots, but by regulating that segment of the industry, that alone will hurt the growth of some of the other parts of our industry.

Vertical: What are your views on the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector, and what feedback are you hearing from industry about these new entrants into the airspace?

James Viola: There’s a lot of excitement, and it’s about working together. We have operated below 2,000 feet [600 meters], below 200 knots [370 kilometers per hour] for 75 years. Being able to help AAM companies integrate into the airspeed and into the mission set, I think AAM companies realize that we can help them with that.

We’re really proud of the AAM roadmap that HAI has published for the last two years. We haven’t done an update this year because we’ve been so consumed with trying to get that roadmap out to Congress and other regulators and to include the European Helicopter Association and European Rotors.

Vertical: HAI is celebrating 75 years. How has the organization or industry evolved over the years?

James Viola: Early on, it was about getting together to try to make sure that the helicopter industry can help each other as they move forward. Still today, that’s our mandate with our 1,600 operator members.

The advisory council that put forward the roadmap for AAM wanted to show that the future of vertical aviation is all inclusive. It’s not just helicopters, but we’re not saying that AAM will replace helicopters either. Helicopters have over 42 missions that they do, and these additional vehicles will do three to five supportive missions in the future.

Everything we have done in the last 75 years will continue. We’re excited to have new entrants a part of our community, and we think we can work well together in the airspace.

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