What does whale oil have in common with deep-water oil and gas production? If you’re talking about the history of Bristow Group, quite a lot. In 1953, Alan Bristow, a former Royal Navy helicopter pilot, founded a company called Air Whaling, that specialized in spotting whales for company factory ships. His experience landing helicopters on a ship’s aft deck in all kinds of weather gave him a considerable advantage as he pursued another promising business opportunity, ferrying men and materials to and from oil rigs in the North Sea. Consequently, in 1955, with a contract to service Shell Oil’s company rigs, he founded Bristow Helicopters.
Today, Bristow operates a fleet of more than 550 aircraft, has 3,300 employees in 20 countries and in a typical week operates some 6,200 flights and carries more than 37,000 passengers. “We operate in all major oil markets around the world, delivering the safest and most reliable service to our clients through a global network of affiliates and nonaffiliates,” explained Mark Duncan, senior vice president, commercial. “We hold the number-one and number-two market positions in the major oil and gas provinces, including the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Australia, West Africa and Brazil.”
While it might seem like Bristow’s business is transporting people and equipment offshore, Duncan said that, according to its customers, Bristow is keeping oil and gas production platforms and rigs operational. “If you look at our global competitor, or any local competitor, we have similar aircraft, similar tenures, etc.,” he said. “What sets Bristow apart is our focus on the three areas valued by our customers, safety, reliability and service. Our promise to our clients is that we will deliver more accident-free flight hours than anyone else; more uptime than anyone else and a hassle-free level of service.”
Target Zero Safety Program
Duncan further explained that the major contributor to the success of Bristow’s safety initiative is its unique “Target Zero” program. “It is a comprehensive cultural and training system that seeks to achieve zero accidents, zero harm to people and zero harm to the environment across all of our operations areas,” he said.
From the president and CEO to the company’s receptionists, Bristow has made Target Zero part of every element of its operations. “Our employees and crews are trained on a regular basis, not only in terms of recurrent requirements, but also in the cultural and behavioral aspect of the work they do,” Duncan said. “This part of the training focuses their minds on the decisions they make and the associated risks.
“A simple question we are challenged to ask: If it was your family in the aircraft, would you release it for flight? Would you fly the mission?” he asked. “It is not an expectation that we lose our focus as we pass across the threshold at the end of our shift. We are expected to carry this behavior into our personal lives and of those around us. We are challenged continuously to look out, listen up, speak up and take action.”
Duncan stressed that Target Zero extends beyond a pure safety initiative. “We have been lauded by our customers for our commitment to global standards, which is a mechanism for identifying and distributing best practices in all aspects of our service.” Global standards is part of the company’s focus on lowering customers’ total cost of operations, while targeting improvements in productivity and efficiency. Poor or unreliable helicopter operations can result in the platform or rig being shut down at huge costs, so Bristow’s focus on safety, reliability and service adds value to its customers.
Four Training Facilities
Of course in the world of helicopter operations, especially when flying in some of the most extreme weather our planet has to offer, good pilot training is the foundation for the safety of every flight. To help ensure that Bristow–and many of its competitors–would always have a supply of qualified pilots, in April 2007, the company acquired Titusville, Fla.-based Helicopter Adventures and formed the Bristow Academy.
“Soon after its creation, the Academy acquired two other helicopter schools. Now we have four training locations–three in the U.S. and one in the UK,” explained Samantha Willenbacher, director, Bristow Academy. “We are an FAA Part 141 flight training academy with a full range of approved programs from private through the commercial/instrument helicopter rating. Our largest campus is here in Titusville, where we have 50 helicopters based. Our other major U.S. location is in New Iberia, Louisiana.”
Bristow Academy also offers specialty programs, including aerial firefighting, external load, mountain operations and night-vision goggle training. “The Academy is also the only JAA-licensed rotary-wing training provider outside of the European Union,” according to Gregory Popp, business development manager, Bristow Academy.
“Of the pilots flying in Bristow’s Norway operations in the North Sea, nearly 50 percent have come from the Academy,” Willenbacher added. “Among all of these graduates, not one has had a serious helicopter accident or incident. There is no better testimony than that to show how well the Academy prepares pilots for real world operations.”
While much of the aviation industry is in the proverbial tank, thanks to a recent boom in global oil and gas exploration and production, Bristow’s future is looking healthy.
“Bristow primarily flies crews and light cargo to production platforms, vessels and rigs. Even through the recession, the demand for oil remained high, so we remained stable,” Duncan said. “We also ensure stability in our revenues through our pricing model. Bristow contracts earn 65 percent of revenue without flying in most markets. Our [pricing] structure includes both a fixed and monthly standing charge to reserve helicopter capacity, which is augmented by variable fees based on hours flown.
“During the next five years we have identified over 400 new opportunities, more than 75 percent of which will require new or replacement aircraft,” he added. “PFC energy, our strategic consulting partner, has identified that total offshore capital expenditures will recover in 2012 to pre-recession rates at a lower cost base than prior levels. That bodes well for Bristow, and with our recent fleet renewal program we are well positioned to capture that growing market.”
The company is also looking to grow outside the oil and gas industry. “[Helicopter] OEMs are intimating an 18- to 24-month lead time for new airframe availability, with much of the demand being consumed by the deep-water markets in West Africa and Latin America,” Duncan said. “Bristow Academy is also poised to benefit from this uptick. For example, Brazil has strict local content requirements when it comes to crewing of aircraft and we are already working to take advantage of that opportunity.”