The global helicopter industry has seen a downturn in new aircraft sales of 40 to 50 percent in 2020, according to new figures from Airbus Helicopters, thanks to the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Airbus’s sales figures run closer to a 25- to 30-percent drop in terms of units, Airbus Helicopters CEO Bruno Even told journalists during a media conference call, allowing the manufacturer to gain an increased share of the shrinking civil market.
“The competition is more impacted [by the Covid crisis] than us,” he said.
Even pointed to the continued success of the light twin H145 — boosted by the certification this year of a five-bladed variant that provides operators with an increase of 330 pounds (150 kilograms) in useful load over the previous version of the type — and “good momentum” in sales of its new medium H160.
The OEM is continuing to meet its target of 15 to 20 bookings a year for the H160, said Even, allowing it to develop an order backlog of 40 to 50 aircraft. Along with anticipated government and military demand, Airbus is aiming to ramp up to 40 orders a year over the next three years.
At the other end of the scale, light helicopter sales are suffering. “When it comes to the light helicopters, the Ecureil [known as the AStar in North America] — we had already observed this in 2008/2009, the previous [economic] crisis — VIP, tourism, utilities are directly impacted by this crisis, so we see a reduction in volume.”
As Even noted, the global helicopter market reduction isn’t a new phenomenon — 2019’s figures also represented a drop from the previous year’s returns, as the oil-and-gas slump continued to make its mark across the industry.
“The helicopter market is already facing — for four/five years — a continued decrease [in sales], so from that perspective, the [Covid] crisis just reinforced this trend,” he said. He added that Airbus had already put in place a “strong transformation plan” to adapt to this longer-term downturn — including things such as worksite specialization — which is providing major benefits to the OEM during the short-term Covid crisis.
In terms of the reduction in bookings, Even said Airbus isn’t seeing cancelled orders — just deferred decisions from customers. “They’re shifting the potential decision to buy a new helicopter,” he said. “It means that helicopters are flying, helicopters are delivering missions that are still required and needed — and sometimes more than ever, when it comes to medical service in this Covid period.”
Airbus’s figures in terms of flight activity make for better reading than the bookings, with an average reduction in flight hours of about 15 percent over 2019.
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“[The reduction of flight hours] is significant, but clearly not at the level of the 50 percent or the 80 percent [reduction] that we see for commercial aviation in some parts of the world,” said Even. He acknowledged that some sectors are seeing a much steeper drop in flight hours than others — tourism and VIP flights, in particular.
Airbus’s support and services have seen “good momentum” despite the downturn, said Even. Indeed, in its parent company’s third quarter report, it was the helicopter group’s higher revenues from services that had allowed it to report “broadly stable” overall revenue for the first nine months of the year.
Even said Airbus has clearly benefitted from its global footprint — including 25 customers centers around the world — which allows it to be in close proximity to its customers, wherever they are. At a time of complex travel restrictions, this is a major bonus.
He also noted the company’s strategy over recent years to encourage its customers to make use of various maintenance contracts — such as HCARE — “and these clearly help us in this market context.”
In terms of the impact of the crisis at Airbus’s facilities, work has slowed at its sites on Donauworth and Marignane to allow the company to implement new safety measures for its employees.
Despite the challenges of 2020, Airbus has still recorded two noteworthy certifications — of the new medium H160, and the five-bladed version of the H145. Both have been approved by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification pending.
Even said Airbus expects the FAA to approve the H160 “early in 2021,” which will allow the type to be delivered to its launch customer, which is in the U.S. Given the challenges of working during the pandemic, Even said a first-quarter 2021 approval will represent “a great achievement” for the program.
The five-bladed H145 is set to be approved by the FAA “in the coming weeks,” he added.
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Other developments in the pipeline include EASA certification of the H135 with a new alternate gross weight (an increased takeoff weight and useful load of 265 pounds/120 kilograms), expected “in the coming weeks;” and a power increase on the H125’s Safran Arriel 2D engine that will give an additional 308 pounds (140 kilograms) of external load capability. Airbus expects this to be certified by the end of 2020.
The OEM’s longer-term innovation strategy includes its ongoing work around the unmanned VSR700, derived from the Hélicoptères Guimbal Cabri G2, and the urban air mobility prototype CityAirbus.
Even said the latter electrically-powered multirotor demonstrator, which first flew at the end of 2019, was “a good example” of what the company is targeting in the medium- to long-term.
“It’s about a business opportunity, but it’s also about bringing new capability when it comes to our military customers and civil customer, and it’s about Airbus Helicopters being committed to sustainable aviation.”