The global helicopter market has been growing for quite a while now with the demand for VIP choppers further accelerated by the recovering business environment and the expanding circle of the rich worldwide. However, even the rich are cost-conscious thus forcing operators and MROs to seek cheaper solutions without compromising high service quality.
Air travelling in style has been on the rise since business people began relaxing after the global financial crisis started showing signs of retreat. The supplier of light helicopters Airbus Helicopter has noted that it is particularly reliant on the VIP market segment in Russia which accounted for 60% of all company sales last year. Needless to say, the prices of new sky-limos are sky-scrapping, and even billionaires are not always ready to splash out their hard-earned cash.
Luckily, according to MRO experts, now there’s a way to save money and still enjoy the benefits of luxury helicopter flights. This can be done by converting certain models of choppers in the existing fleet. But can a converted machine match the capabilities of a brand new VIP unit?
Expanding businesses, newest developments in the emerging markets and other favourable trends are bringing the VIP helicopter market back on its track. VIP choppers are in demand amongst private entities, governmental institutions and operators across the globe. For instance, last year alone the Russian Ministry of Defence ordered 7 AW139s for the transportation of VIP persons. The machines cost a whopping sum of RUB 630 million. At the same time, the Polish military welcomed the delivery of its first two W-3WA Sokol eight-seaters. In total, based on the contract signed back in 2011, the manufacturer of helicopters PZL-Świdnik has to produce 5 VIP class W-3WAs. Several years ago (in 2012), the Russian carrier Utair, currently in ownership of a 350 choppers’ fleet, acquired 15 EC-175 helicopters and is planning to purchase the same amount of machines in the near future. The company already carries its VIP passengers on seven Eurocopter AS 355Ns and four BO-105s. These light-type helicopters allow to transport an increasing number of VIP passengers, patrol oil and gas networks as well as perform medical emergency flights.
“The VIP helicopters segment has always had its place in the overall helicopter market. For instance, in Europe alone corporate, private and VIP choppers account for slightly over 55% of the helicopter market. With the constantly growing demand in the region, such helicopters spend around 1.7 million hours up in the sky annually (i.e. around 250 hours per single helicopter per year). However, Europe is not even the continent boasting the highest demand, as the same numbers in the US are two and a half times higher,” comments Anatolij Legenzov, the CEO of Helisota.
As mentioned before, the price of a brand new helicopter is really high, especially when it comes to VIP types. For example, a Robinson R22 will break your wallet by $250.000 whilst if you wish to acquire a brand new R44, be ready to part with around $410.000-520.000. Some clients go as far as ordering the Canadian-made Bell 407 – a machine priced at $2 mln. However, investing into a brand new helicopter is not the only way to enjoy VIP-style comfort. Some clients nowadays opt for the strategy of refurbishing second-hand choppers. For instance, back in 2008 the Government of India placed a large order for Mi-17V-5 helicopters. While it is still being processed, the representatives have already announced that 12 of the machines will be converted into VIP class units.
“MRO specialists can offer a wide range of works granting viable cost-saving alternatives in the VIP helicopter market. Safety, comfort and great technical characteristics are the key requirements listed by clients and these requirements can indeed be met by reputable MRO providers. When purchasing new machines, clients are normally offered to choose from the already assembled units with a set of manufacturer-determined characteristics. Of course, there is always an option to introduce additional features under specific client request, but these are usually minor. Meanwhile, when converting an existing helicopter from scratch, a client may approach the selected MRO provider with way more specific instructions as concerns the final characteristics of the end product. This way the client can not only decide upon the desired equipment, but also calculate/plan the entire production budget,” shares Anatolij Legenzov, the CEO of Helisota.
Currently there are 8500 Russian-made choppers operated worldwide and the majority of them are, in fact, Mi helicopters. According to the CEO, they are particularly suitable when it comes to VIP conversion. Due to a great availability of parts and components, their MRO support is cheaper whilst their salon can be relatively easily refurbished in accordance with the Italian-style design. Moreover, there is no shortage of pilots qualified to fly this type of helicopters. Upon installing modern avionics with air forecast radios, integrating top of the range audio system and introducing additional sound isolation, MRO specialists can ensure that the refurbished machine will be in no way inferior to a brand new VIP class helicopter.