Sightseeing market a boon for Eurocopter’s EcoStar

 - September 13, 2006, 2:04 PM

Investing in a new helicopter is not a decision to be made lightly–especially for a mom-and-pop operation working in a particularly volatile market sector. Helicopter tour firms have taken a big knock since 9/11 and, as the FAA and National Park Service implement “natural quiet” in the region, the Grand Canyon area of Nevada and Arizona will be subject to new, stricter noise rules and flight restrictions.

But Las Vegas-based Maverick Helicopters clearly sees an opportunity rather than a problem. So confident about the future are owners Greg and Brenda Rochna that they have ordered 14 new EC 130s. By the time they all arrive, in 2008, Maverick will own 35 and have the biggest fleet of the type in the world and the highest seat capacity of any Part 135 operator in Nevada.

Maverick v-p John Buch says the owners are confident because they have targeted the high end of the market. “We charge a premium price [an average of $20 per head more than other operators] and offer a premium service. Our sales team markets us to the big hotels in Las Vegas–the Bellaggio and MGM Grand, for example–and to country clubs in cities farther afield, such as Phoenix and Scottsdale. We do a lot of private charter trips as well.

“An important part of our business plan is that we don’t offer discounts, so there’s no chance of sitting next to someone who has paid less for the flight.”

Maverick’s big break came in 2003 when the operator was featured on the Travel Channel and subsequently ranked number three and four of the Top Ten helicopter thrills in the world. The firm offers a wide range of Grand Canyon packages from its base at McCarran Airport at Las Vegas–claiming to go farther and deeper than anyone else–and has recently opened a new base at Sonoma, from where it can fly guests through the famous red rock formations en route to the canyon.

Said Buch, “One popular service that we think sets us apart from other operators is that, rather than just playing a taped commentary through the passengers’ headsets, the pilot gives a personal tour and the passengers can converse with him. They like that. We also have cameras trained on the cabin and, when they get back, can offer them a personalized DVD of their experience.”

When Greg and Brenda Rochna started the company 10 years ago, it just supported them. Now it employs 115 people: these days, Vietnam vet Greg flies only when a back-up is needed. The ramp is a constant hive of activity. Movements begin before dawn with the $424 Wind Dancer tour, which offers breakfast on the canyon floor, and end with the sunset Dream Catcher tour, which offers hors d’oeuvres and cocktails for $494.

Being clear about its customer profile and refusing to discount has paid off in spades for Maverick: Buch said that business has grown by 30 to 40 percent over each of the last four years. He added that last year the operator carried some 90,000 passengers. Maverick used to fly the AStar–indeed Greg Rochna started the business with a single example of the type–but is now phasing them out in favor of the quieter EC 130 “EcoStar,” which offers two more passenger seats.

An Environmentally Friendly Workhorse
“We promote the relative environmental benefits of the EC 130. New National Park Service noise regulations are due to be imposed. We will be able to live with them: we’ve worked hard to comply with them.”

Converting a business to another helicopter type is not necessarily straightforward. The EC 130 in a seven-passenger configuration presents weight-and-balance issues, in addition to passenger handling ones, that Buch believes other operators have not felt ready to undertake. “Because [the EC 130] is essentially an AS 350B with a bigger cabin, even after relocating some avionics, the extra seat up front is really suitable only for smaller passengers. “As a result, we quite often have to drop to six.”

Nevertheless American Eurocopter says that, since its 2001 launch, the single-engine EC 130 has been well received by tourist and corporate charter businesses. A spokesman told AIN, “The B4 model’s fenestron [anti- torque] system has a noise level 8.5 decibels below ICAO limits and 0.5 dB below the Grand Canyon National Park Standard–the strictest in the world. The helicopter is also equipped with an automatic rotor speed control system, which adjusts the engine to match flight conditions and ensures a minimum noise level at cruise speed.

“The cabin offers 23 percent more cabin space than the other versions of the AStar and can be equipped with a seven- or eight-seat arrangement. The standard model’s interior finish includes a ventilation system, lighting and carpeting, all designed for optimum passenger and crew comfort. The radio- navigation system and integrated control panel allow these helicopters to fly under VFR both day and night.”

So where next for Maverick? Buch said the company has thoughts of striking out “beyond Las Vegas.” In the flight-seeing market? “Of course,” he said. That’s what we do.”

Moving toward a quieter canyon
New FAA guidelines covering aircraft noise at the Grand Canyon National Park will offer incentives to sightseeing tour operators who switch to quieter aircraft such as the EC 130. Beginning in April 2008, when the rules come into force, a provisional flight corridor will also be reinstated through a current flight free zone for future use by such aircraft.

The total area of the park otherwise covered by these flight free zones will increase from approximately 45 percent to 75 percent and place nearly all of the park within a special flight rules area.

Further changes simplify the sightseeing route structure and provide greater protection to Native American traditional cultural properties by redirecting air tours away from the most sensitive sites. The rule also increases the area’s maximum altitude from 15,000 feet to 18,000 feet msl, more accurately to reflect commercial SFRA operations.

Tour operators say aircraft carry 800,000 tourists over and to the northern Arizona park each year. More than half the flights originate in Las Vegas.

The industry has been asking the FAA for incentives, said Steve Bassett, head of the U.S. Tour Association industry group. “Aircraft that meet the quiet technology standards should get something back.”

In the National Parks Overflight Act of 1987 Congress directed the FAA and the National Park Service to achieve “natural quiet” at the park. The agencies have defined that as when half of the park is free of aircraft noise, 75 percent to 100 percent of the time.