Airbus Helicopters CEO: 2021 a ‘turning point’ for helicopter market

Avatar for Oliver JohnsonBy Oliver Johnson | January 26, 2022

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 54 seconds.

Airbus Helicopters booked 419 gross orders in 2021, with CEO Bruno Even declaring the year a “turning point” after several years of continuous decrease in the helicopter market, following the oil-and-gas downturn and the Covid pandemic.

Airbus logged 52 orders for its H160 in 2021. Airbus Photo
Airbus logged 52 orders for its H160 in 2021. Airbus Photo

The numbers represented close to 50 percent growth from the lows of 2020, when the company saw just 289 gross orders as the pandemic hit the globe. According to Airbus figures, the global helicopter market grew 40 percent last year, and while that 2020 figure did set a very low bar — 50 percent below 2019 — Even said the trend is clearly positive.

“I’m convinced that 2020 will represent a low point from which will recover progressively,” he told media during a call to announce the results. However, he cautioned it would still take two to three years before the manufacturer could expect to return to pre-Covid order levels.

“I think 2022 should confirm the positive trend, but still below the level we had before 2020.”

Even said Airbus’s increase in orders was driven in part by higher demand for its light helicopter line — the H125 (147 orders) and H130 (48 orders) combining for close to 200 bookings. This was powered by the North American market, through the emergency medical services (EMS), VIP, and utility sectors, he said.

“It’s a good recovery and we know based on our experience — we’ve seen this in the past — that the light helicopter [range] is always the range where we see the first signs of recovery,” said Even. “It’s positive not only for 2021, but for the years to come.”

For its light and medium twins, Airbus recorded 65 H135 orders, 93 bookings for the H145, and 52 for the H160. Of those 52 H160s, Even said 15 were civil orders, and the type was boosted by the French government ordering 40 aircraft over the year. The type’s military version, the H160M, has been chosen for the French Armed Forces’ Light Joint Helicopter program (HIL), with the French government signing a contract in December 2021 for the development of prototypes and a first batch of 30 aircraft.

At the heavier end of the manufacturer’s range, the super medium H175 received just four orders, and there were 10 bookings for the Super Puma family.

Even said this was clearly tied to the ongoing downturn in the offshore oil-and-gas market.

“The request for super medium and heavy helicopters is still low, starting with the oil-and-gas crisis,” he said. “Our analysis, in particular for the H175, [is that] the main challenge is more a market challenge than a competitiveness issue for this helicopter.”

When asked about any potential recovery in the offshore sector, Even admitted “it will take time,” and said a “change of habits” in the sector could impact the level of recovery.

That said, he still declared the sector “an area of growth,” with the main opportunities coming in fleet renewal.

“We’ve seen this in in the past with the phasing out of the S-76, which has created a strong demand for replacement,” he said. “I’m convinced that the question of the progressive phasing out of the S-92 will come when we see what a super medium helicopter like the H175 can provide in terms of range, capability, and transport of pax [passengers]. They can perform most of the mission of the S-92 at a much lower price.”

Even also raised the issue of an increased desire for sustainability from the end users — oil and gas producers.

“We see a clear trend on the market — it’s not specific to the helicopter market — but we see it on the helicopter market where more and more our customers … and end customers … have a key objective to reduce their co2 emission impact, and here a helicopter can directly contribute,” he said.

“When I compare the co2 emission of an H175 versus an S-92, there is a big improvement — there is a big gap.”

One potential source of H175 sales could be through a military version of the type. Airbus is pitching the H175M as a potential candidate for the U.K.’s emerging New Medium Helicopter (NHM) requirement, which aims to replace the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Airbus Puma HC2s by 2025.

“We are convinced that this is the best helicopter when it comes to the operational requirements, when it comes to the competitiveness and when it comes to the requirement to have some local content,” said Even. “We have been clear that we would base the production of this helicopter in the U.K.”

Small rise in deliveries

Deliveries for the year reached 338, rising from the 2020 figure of 300.

Delivery highlights for the manufacturer over the year included the first ever H160 to Japanese operator All Nippon Helicopter, the first five-bladed H145 retrofit to DRF Luftrettung, and the first UH-72B from the manufacturer’s facility in Columbus, Mississippi, to the U.S. Army.

The H160 has been certified by regulators in Europe and Japan, and Even said he expects the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would follow suit “at the beginning of this year.”

As for the year ahead, Even said innovation would be the key focus for Airbus. Test flights are set to continue on the VSR700 unmanned aircraft, the Airbus RACER high-speed demonstrator will perform its first flight, and the company plans to perform a flight with a twin-engine aircraft fueled entirely with sustainable aviation fuel.

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