HeliSolutions sets up shop in upscale mall

 - September 12, 2006, 10:03 AM

On any given day at the ultra-exclusive Daslu shopping center in São Paulo, Brazil, the parking lot is filled with Mercedes-Benzes, Jaguars and BMWs. It is beyond upscale and, for some, redefines pretentious.

Here, customers are not only from among the elite Paulistas, so are many of the sales staff, known as “daslusetes.” To “work” here is a status symbol of sorts.

Certain areas are off limits to men. On these floors and in these shops, open only to women, an errant male visitor is quickly met and firmly escorted out. In places where women stroll casually about clad in little or nothing as they browse among displays of Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, men are not welcome.

But they are welcome elsewhere in Daslu. There are menswear shops, a Ferrari dealership, a yacht sales office, and now, a place to purchase a helicopter–or at least a share in one.

And why not? In a city where rush-hour traffic is a 24-hours-
a-day phenomenon and security is a necessity, the helicopter has become almost as
common as the Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar. In fact, São Paulo boasts the largest fleet of civil helicopters in the world, and they flit from rooftop helipad to rooftop helipad like dragonflies on mating day. The civil helicopter fleet in São Paulo numbers, by most estimates, more than 1,000, and there are more than 200 active helipads scattered around the city.

HeliSolutions, a São Paulo-based helicopter fractional ownership operator, is one of the most recent arrivals at Daslu. “We benefit a lot from word of mouth,” said Rodrigo Andrade Sá, president of HeliSolutions, “so being in Daslu helps the company to become more visible.”

Each helicopter has 10 owners who fly an average of six to seven hours a month. The lion’s share of the company’s clients–about 70 percent–are businesses; the remainder are individual owners.

Since it was founded in 1999, HeliSolutions has grown quickly and the fleet now totals 11 aircraft–three Robinson R44 Ravens, three Eurocopter EC 120 Colibris and five AS 350B3 Squirrels. This year the company saw 30-percent growth and, according to Andrade, expects similar growth next year.    

HeliSolutions has on order a new Colibri and a new Squirrel, both of which are scheduled for delivery next May. “We would like to have the helicopters sooner, but delivery dates are tight,” he said.

Andrade sees the fleet composition as unlikely to change. “The Robinson makes sense for urban operations and is inexpensive to operate,” he explained. “Likewise, because Eurocopter has an assembly plant in Brazil through Helibras, [obtaining] parts and maintenance for the Colibris and Squirrels is more efficient.”

The Case for the Helicopter

In recent years, business at HeliSolutions has gotten a boost from a number of sources, one of which is the weakened U.S. dollar. “The cost to buy a share
in a helicopter has declined by almost 30 percent in local currency.”

Another factor is the difficulty in getting around São Paulo by car, despite government attempts to limit traffic in the city. In total, traffic jams during the peak rush hours often approach 100 miles, and chronic gridlock makes travel by car unpredictable at best. By comparison, Los Angeles traffic congestion looks like a Sunday-morning drive to church.

Another factor is a growing concern about safety. Despite a decline in the number of car-jackings and kidnappings in recent years, executives and wealthy individuals still consider the money well spent. “The fact is, the sky is much safer than the ground,” said Andrade.

No less a factor is an expanding infrastructure. Nearly every major commercial building in São Paulo has a helipad and Andrade noted that to construct a new building without a helipad is to risk losing tenants.

The airways in São Paulo are sufficiently congested that there is a special ATC system divided into zones with airspace corridors linking various cities and business districts.

Andrade contends that in coming years helicopters will increasingly become essential business tools to complement fixed-wing business aviation.

He believes that if commercial aviation continues to grow at current rates, business aviation will eventually be removed from Congonhas International Airport, relegating it to outlying airports such as Jundiaí, Viracopos and Guarulhos. This will almost certainly result in an expansion of helicopter operations between the outlying airports, Congonhas International and various city heliports.

With continued economic growth throughout Brazil, HeliSolutions has begun expanding beyond São Paulo. The company already bases three helicopters in Rio de Janeiro, and Andrade believes that demand in the city of Campinas will soon require HeliSolutions to base helicopters there as well. And Riberão Preto, the sugar and ethanol capital of Brazil, has seen its helicopter fleet grow to become the third largest in the nation, said Andrade. HeliSolutions is also eyeing other Brazilian markets, including Salvador in the northeastern state of Bahia, which has developed into a major center of tourism and is a center for a number of key industries, including oil and petrochemicals.

All these factors, assuming continued political and economic stability, suggest to Andrade that HeliSolutions will see significant growth in coming years.

The role of the helicopter has expanded significantly since the first, a Bell 47D, was introduced into the country in 1948. And according to Andrade, the best is yet to come.