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It’s been a tricky couple of years for most of us. Enduring waves of pandemic-induced lockdowns to emerge into energy and economic crises caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has felt like we’re going from one era-defining challenge to the next. Not that you would get any hint of this chatting to the eternally positive Romain Trapp.
He stepped into his role as president of Airbus Helicopters, Inc. (AHI — the OEM’s U.S. subsidiary) and head of Airbus Helicopters North America (AHNA) in 2019, just a few months before AHI celebrated its 50th anniversary. He had been in the saddle less than a year when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, with the resulting governmental restrictions changing the way people live, work, and move around the globe. Almost all businesses were impacted by the pandemic, but Trapp said the critical missions performed by many helicopters helped insulate their operators to a large degree.
“Seventy-five percent of the helicopters flying in North America are flying for critical missions,” he told Vertical. “At the time of Covid, these critical care missions were needed even more than before.”
The result was no decrease in flying hours for the Airbus Helicopters fleet in North America from 2019 to 2020. AHI recorded a drop in new aircraft sales, but customers still took delivery of their existing orders throughout the year, and activity at the company’s various facilities in the region remained static.
Trapp said the adjustment to the changing situation in the first months of the pandemic was relatively straightforward, driven by the need to provide continuous support for the critical missions of its customers.
“We had to support the police, the Coast Guard, the air medical industry,” he said. “We had to support the helicopters fighting fires, and they were counting on us to do so.”
Employees worked from home where that was possible. Those who needed to be on-site, whether for support and services or production purposes, changed their work schedules and shift patterns to ensure they were able to do so safely.
“We would try to spread people as much as possible and everybody was on board, because everybody knew that we had a duty to perform, which was helping our operators, saving lives and protecting people,” said Trapp.
A growing demand
This year, AHNA is facing demand for aircraft not experienced for a decade, while its customers are recording more flight hours than they were pre-pandemic in 2019. The sales demand is split about evenly between single-engine aircraft (H125 and H130) and light twins (H135 and H145). Historically, the region would be seeing more of a 60/40 split, Trapp said, with single-engine aircraft representing the larger chunk of sales.
“[The change] is not because the single is not selling well — the single is selling as expected, as in line with previous years,” he said. “It’s actually because we see a significant increase in demand on the twin side.”
This desire for twins has largely come from the air medical sector, he added.
The overall growth in sales has been driven by a “mix of different things” depending on the market segment, said Trapp. On the law enforcement side, he said there was a “strong need for fleet replacement” that had been put on hold due to the pandemic, but that funding was now being made available to various agencies. This trend, he said, should continue in 2023.
Fleet replacement has also driven growth in the air medical sector, said Trapp, but this is beginning to level off due to the impact of the No Surprises Act (passed to restrict surprise medical billing in emergency contexts). This has created a delay in operators getting paid by insurance companies. Still, at AMTC22 Elevated (the air medical industry’s foremost conference and tradeshow), AHI revealed it had recorded more than 35 orders in the sector over the last 12 months.
Finally, the private and business aviation sector has continued to provide a steady stream of sales, despite the prevailing economic headwinds.
“Private/business aviation was very strong last year, is very strong this year, and will continue to be strong,” said Trapp. “In all fairness, [this] took us a bit by surprise, but I think it’s also because many of the actions which we had launched in the past have been paying off.”
The two trends driving this growth have been the attraction of private/business clients who are new to the helicopter world, and existing users who are upgrading to newer technology. The five-bladed H145 has proven particularly appealing to the latter group, said Trapp, thanks to the aircraft’s capability and the smoothness of its ride.
This year, AHI delivered the first ACH130 Aston Martin edition in North America. “Between the ACH130 and especially the ACH145, we have two bestsellers right now for this market,” said Trapp.
Those three sectors — law enforcement, air medical, and private/business aviation — have each made up roughly a third of AHI’s sales this year. Trapp said utility sales are yet to rebound — something he hopes to see next year — while the oil-and-gas sector is showing “very positive” signs after years of significant challenges in the sector. There is a clear trend in this sector for a move from heavy- to medium-lift aircraft, he added — a requirement AHI hopes to address with the H160 and H175.
A delayed entry
As recently as February, Airbus had been targeting this summer for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of the most recent addition to its fleet — the H160. The type was certified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on July 1, 2020, and the manufacturer had hoped FAA certification would follow soon afterwards, paving the way for deliveries to launch customers in the U.S.
However, work to secure that approval was hampered by the pandemic, and the FAA opened up more topics for clarification than Airbus expected. More than two years later, that work is still ongoing.
“We have provided lots of documents to the FAA and I think they are now going through their process,” said Trapp. “It’s taking time, but it’s moving forward. . . . We are all eager to get there as quickly as possible.”
Though wary to speculate on a timeline for approval, Trapp said they are “getting closer to the finish line.” PHI, the type’s launch operator in North America, has taken part in pilot and maintenance training on the type, and the first aircraft is ready and waiting to be delivered in Grand Prairie.
Pre-pandemic, Trapp had spoken enthusiastically about the type’s prospects in North America — calling it a “gamechanger” that would be a bestseller in the medium market for years to come. Today, he’s just as optimistic.
“We are selling the H160 right now in North America — and we have several deals which are in the final stage of being signed before year-end,” he said. “The way our customers look at it is: ‘You are Airbus, we know you’re going to get it done. Which means when I buy a helicopter today, and the delivery is in two years-ish from now, I know you will get it done. So, I’m not worried. I want the aircraft because I love the aircraft.’ We see actually a stronger demand than what we were expecting from having the delay in certification in mind.”
The other type in the manufacturer’s fleet that could meet offshore demand is the H175. The type was certified by EASA in 2014, at which point Airbus was also pursuing FAA approval. This process was then paused for several years — but the manufacturer is now actively pursuing it again.
“We have restarted the process, [and] there have been several discussions,” said Trapp. “In hindsight, maybe it was not the best decision we took [to pause the certification process], but OK, now we need to catch up, because the demand is there.”
He said the company’s experience with the H160 would help expedite things. “We are learning our lessons and are going to have hopefully a very collaborative approach with the FAA in order to get the aircraft certified as soon as possible.”
Five years ago, Airbus Helicopters underwent a significant reorganization of its sites in North America, with each focusing on a specialty. Grand Prairie, Texas, is AHI’s headquarters, a Center of Excellence for most of its support and services activity, and home to a training center and dynamic component repair shop. The company’s main warehouse is at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, allowing speedy and straightforward shipping across the continent and to South America.
Columbus, Mississippi, is home to final assembly lines (FALs) for the H125 and H145, and is also where aircraft are customized. It also provides some maintenance services. North of the border, Airbus Helicopters Canada in Fort Erie, Ontario, focuses on the manufacture of composite parts and support for Canadian customers; while a site in Fort Rucker, Alabama, has a dedicated warehouse and team to support the U.S. Army’s Airbus fleet at the base.
“Firstly, [site specialization] allows us to avoid duplication,” said Trapp. “It has allowed us to concentrate and put in one site the best of our people, to have leaner processes and really to be able to cope more efficiently with an increase in demand. And I’m glad we did it, because we have seen over the last year-and-a-half a significant increase in demand, which will continue in 2023. And now we have the means to be able to manage it.”
AHNA has more than 1,000 employees, and continues to actively recruit to meet the growing demand.
“In 2021, we grew our turnover by about 10 percent versus 2020,” said Trapp. “In 2022, we are on a similar trend of plus 10 percent, and when I see what we have to deliver in 2023 in terms of new helicopters, in terms of retrofit, maintenance, supporting our customers with spares and so on, I am expecting around the same figure. So, it’s significant growth, and of course you need people, and we hire as we need.”
In terms of his ambitions for AHNA, he said he is taking a “pragmatic approach” to bringing in any additional capabilities.
“We want to be closer to our customers, and when it makes sense from an industrial standpoint to bring more capabilities, we do so as the demand arises,” he said. “It doesn’t take long for growth to lead to a need for additional capability.”
One thing customers in North America could see on their side of the Atlantic before long is one of VRM Switzerland’s virtual reality training devices. The company recently signed a global partnership with Airbus, and Trapp revealed the two are working to bring a device to Grand Prairie. “It’s an amazing device, and we are looking forward to enhancing our partnership with VRM,” he said.
All in all, Trapp said it’s an exciting time to work in the helicopter industry, which he believes is on an upward trend that will continue for several years — especially in North America. “Our helicopters save lives and protect people every day,” he said. “This is what motivates all of our employees to come to work every day — and this is what drives me, too.”