By Alex Hawkes
The developing helicopter market sets its sights on boosting operations in the GCC as Heli Middle East comes to Muscat next month.
From tourism to taxi, emergency and rescue to the oil and gas sector, there is an abundance of markets open to the merits of helicopters. Far from being unnoticed, many companies are now considering helicopter use, with many hoping to be part of a potentially huge industry.
Founded just under a year ago in Abu Dhabi, Falcon Aviation represents one of the first locally-owned helicopter businesses to enter the UAE market. A daunting but potentially beneficial task, the company speaks openly about the challenges ahead.
"The whole of the UAE is booming and it also helps us that they are growing the industry away from reliance on oil to tourism. They are trying to develop the financial, tourism and medical sectors which gives us limitless opportunities," says Philip Markham, general manager of Falcon Aviation Services. "It is a virgin market; nobody has offered this before, only with float planes and that failed," he adds. Currently, Falcon is restricting operations to the UAE and surrounding areas, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman, but a strong focus lies on the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. By allowing the market to dictate the type of helicopter it requires, Falcon Aviation believes flexibility could be key to breaking the market opportunities that arise.
"We reverse engineer - we let the market let us know what we need. From my experience in the air taxi and tourism market, we decided to build our taxi fleet around the Augusta A109, an Italian aircraft that seats six people and is incredibly fast - it is the Ferrari of our fleet," says Markham.
"For tourism, we selected the French Eurocopter EC130, which with a single engine is cheap to operate and therefore cheap to rent. We are now looking into which models to select for the oil industry."
The largest supplier of commercial helicopters in the Middle East is Hawker Pacific Airservices Ltd, the regional representative of Bell Helicopter. According to Hawker Pacific, some 85% of commercial helicopters across the region are Bell's. "We have represented Bell helicopters in this region for over 35 years. We supply helicopters, administration and consultancy services, as well as specialist helicopter equipment, accessories and customising," said Alan Parsons, vice president of aircraft sales at Hawker Pacific Airservices.
Hawker operates a motor and tail repair facility as part of a joint venture with Bell affiliate, RBI, and plans to open a new hydraulic servo repair and overhaul facility this month. The groups that companies like Hawker work with - military, police, commercial offshore operators and royal flights - says a great deal about where the heart of helicopter use lies in the Middle East.
"Militaries in the region are either in the process of acquiring new helicopters or placing orders. Most of these aircrafts will be delivered over a five to eight year period and are the results of long term in depth studies on equipment requirements," says Parsons. "Presently, the region is in an expansion mode particularly in the gas fields off the coast of Qatar. Offshore helicopter operators are usually at the forefront of helicopter technology as they are driven by the customer requirements and the implementation of Civil Aviation Authorities operating regulations."
The oil and gas sector is one of the main topics covered in this year's Heli Middle East conference, organised by the Shephard Group for the 14-15 May at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Muscat. Originating as a military helicopter conference, both days will focus on civil and public helicopter use, in an effort to increase talks on helicopter operations in the GCC.
"The whole move of the show is the link between civil helicopter growth and a regions economy, which encompasses several aspects. These are the increase in business and industry type flights in terms of oil and gas, things such as general pipeline checking.
"The big thing standing in the way of that at the moment is the restrictions on air space," says Andrew Drwiega, publishing director at Shephard Group.
The use of helicopters in the oil and gas sector in the Middle East, however, is relatively mature in comparison to the tourism and taxi market. Injecting interest in the concept, the conference intends to look at methods for overcoming the boundaries often encountered by domestic and international air restrictions. It will also discuss the lack of facilities equipped to deal with helicopters.
Tackling such problems head on, Falcon Aviation seems under no illusion of what lies at the heart of helicopter restrictions. Armed with a management team that has a collective 79 years worth of experience in commercial operating on helicopters in the UAE, Falcon's directors believes they understand the infrastructure, particularly in Abu Dhabi.
"We have better solutions in Abu Dhabi. We have an arrangement with the palace whereby we have use of two beautiful helipads down by the coastline. We are actually building our own helipad in the city as well, 3km away from the palace. Abu Dhabi is not a problem, in Dubai, however, we are landing on private helipads which is not sustainable in the long term," says Markham.
"Its like everything in Dubai - its restricted by infrastructure, there is a lack of public use helipads in the Emirate. For example, if someone wanted to hire a helicopter from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, we would have to find somewhere in Dubai to land. The cost of landing on the Burj Al Arab is 4000 dirhams and can only be for guests at the hotel. The lack of public use helipads is holding the whole of the sector back at the moment."
There seems little debate, however, about the increased demand once the infrastructure is in place. Indeed, Dubai is attracting high profile business types in their droves. With traffic queues that match the city's skyscrapers in length, the logical step for those where time means money is helicopters. Alongside the development of offshore property projects, many are predicting a boom of helicopter use in the near future.
"Corporate and tourist travel is expanding at a good and sustained rate, local helicopter companies are investing in more helicopters to cope with the increasing demand, and a number of business groups are looking at investing in helicopter operations," says Hawker's Parsons. "With the ‘Palm's' and ‘World Islands' building projects well under way in Dubai and elsewhere in the Gulf we see the market continuing to expand.The influx of high profile businessmen from all parts of the world along with visiting celebrities will continue to fuel the demand. This is certainly one of the most exciting times for corporate helicopter travel," he adds.
A different challenge faces those wishing to become involved in the search and rescue sector. It is yet to be privitised, and with many countries outside the region opting to do just that, many believe it will soon become an open market.
"We believe there is an opportunity with Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS), which is currently carried out by government agencies. These normally have other functions such as law enforcement, so we believe there will eventually be scope to become a service provider," says Markham.
lthough still relatively in its infancy, the helicopter industry in the Middle East is saturated with possibilities. As its progress develops over the coming years, aviation industry insiders and investors will undoubtedly monitor its rise with baited interest.For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.