French Helicopter Lobby Raises Alarm over Strict Operating Rules

 - March 29, 2012, 7:25 AM

The French helicopter lobbying association, Union Française de l’Hélicoptère (UFH), is voicing strong and growing concern that ever-stricter operational rules are preventing operators from running a sound business and have already claimed victims among the smallest ones. About 600 commercial and private helicopters currently fly in France, according to the association.

“We are talking about the survival of the French helicopter operator industry,” Dominique Orbec, UFH president, emphasized during a press briefing organized in the Alps in January. He complained that French authorities too often listen to vocal opponents. For example, local residents around heliports now benefit from a law that imposes major restrictions on helicopter operations in urban areas.

“France is one of the main producers of helicopters–thanks to Eurocopter–and is also the main producer of rules to prevent them from flying,” Orbec said. However, he levels some of the blame at operators that do not comply with noise-abatement rules in the Saint-Tropez gulf in the summer. “Their wealthy customers offer to pay the fines and some operators accept,” he explained. This hurts the image of the entire industry, he added, noting that while the practice has abated somewhat it remains unsatisfactory.

Uniformity at the Cost of Common Sense

The association now fears the EASA OPS 3 regulation–scheduled for implementation in April but likely to be delayed because the EASA rulemaking process is dragging–will add further costs. “In its current form it calls for uniformity in the way helicopter companies–big or small–operate; but one size does not fit all,” UFH general manager Thierry Couderc asserts. As an example, he cited the experience of SAF Hélicoptères, a well known enterprise in the Alps that was recently asked to write procedures relating to cabin crew–regardless of the fact that SAF does not employ any cabin crew and has no plans to do so. The EASA initially remained insistent, but president Christophe Rosset wrote a letter that he believes ended the discussion.

Another bureaucratic morass has been administrative authorizations for crop-dusting operations. “If a cereal field is spread across two départements [a French département is about the size of a large U.S. county], you have to [secure] two distinct authorizations,” Rosset explained. To make things worse, the general rule now is that helicopter crop-dusting is prohibited, and such operations can be conducted only after obtaining an exemption. As a result, the UFH has already witnessed the demise of some small agricultural helicopter companies. “If this activity disappears, what will the authorities do if they need to counter an invasion of processionary caterpillars?” Rosset warned. “We are consistently hampered in conducting our day-to-day business,” Yannick Métairie, CEO of Mont-Blanc Hélicoptères, added.

The regulation also creates a headache for inter-hospital patient transportation. “Depending on whether the patient is on a litter and in an emergency, or in the same litter but not in an emergency, or seated, three different sets of operational rules apply,” Rosset said, yet these rules are all governing the same helicopter and the same trip from hospital A to hospital B.

The lobby especially opposes the elements of EASA OPS 3 that relate to a second crewmember in emergency medical service (EMS) and twin-engine helicopters flying over hostile, uninhabited areas. The second flight crewmember for EMS operations raises payload concerns. The light twins (such as Eurocopter EC135s and AgustaWestland A109s) the operators are using can certainly carry an extra person, but at the expense of fuel capacity. The radius of action could then become incompatible with the hospitals’ requirements.

To carry one more crewmember and the required fuel, “We would have to buy bigger aircraft,” multiplying costs by 250 percent, Rosset asserted. In addition, hospitals would need to reinforce their helipads, another costly proposition. Requiring a second crewmember is not economically effective, the UFH maintains. Rather, the need for a second crewmember “should depend on the tasks assigned to HEMS operations, which are not harmonized in Europe.” The flight conditions (VFR, night VFR or IFR) should also be taken into account, Couderc added. Moreover, the role and qualifications of this second crewmember have yet to be defined.

Flying over hostile, uninhabited areas is bread-and-butter for operators such as Mont-Blanc Hélicoptères and SAF when, for example, they carry freight to mountain shelters. They perform these missions with light singles such as the Eurocopter AS350B2/B3.

Operators maintain that the addition of a second engine does not necessarily improve safety. During some critical phases of flight in mountainous areas, twins are exposed to the same level of risk as singles in the event of an engine failure, they say. Safety statistics do not support the case for twins over singles, according to Orbec. Finally, singles are more agile than twins, an important attribute in hostile terrain.

Although the association’s concerns are specific to France, the UFH is working directly with the EASA, rather than relaying its concerns through France’s DGAC.

Far-Reaching Consequences

“All French citizens use helicopters daily but they do not know it,” said Orbec, anticipating the whole populace will feel the loss if a significant number of helicopter companies disappear. First, Orbec said, skills would vanish, possibly hampering the nation’s export of helicopter operational know-how. In addition, some wide-ranging safety inspections of nuclear powerplants are conducted by helicopter.

Furthermore, some winter mountain activities would be delayed. “Today, we have a contract to trigger avalanches at a dangerous spot above the road to Isola 2000, a ski resort in the south Alps. We are supposed to trigger them within two hours after Isola 2000’s phone call,” Rosset explained.

Heavy snowfall in December caused extensive power outages in the Alps. Helicopters, including those of Mont-Blanc Hélicoptères and SAF, helped inspect and repair the power lines in a matter of hours or days. Without them, “it would have taken weeks,” Orbec said.

So, if the new rules EASA is pushing for are so heavy-handed, what would the operators deem to be acceptable? “Let the pilots fly enough!” says Couderc, suggesting a minimum 250 hours per year (far above today’s average, he estimated). That way, pilots would be more comfortable and practiced with their flying. For example, last year, a Swiss pilot was chosen to carry a bulky sling load on to the roof of the House of Justice in Paris. “No French pilot was deemed to have enough experience,” Couderc said.

If pilots are to log a healthy number of flight hours, the authorities should “lift administrative and economic constraints,” Couderc insists. With less economic pressure, operators would feel free to abort a mission in marginal conditions.

Training would also increase pilot hours. Rosset mentioned the EC135 full flight simulator SAF has bought. A €5 million ($6.6 million) investment, it is being installed at the firm’s base in Albertville. “In pilot training, we will be able to [explore more real-world exercises], notably in [simulated] weather conditions,” Rosset said.

The UFH is hopeful that the ongoing economic woes in Europe will have politicians and administrations taking the financial health of small companies more seriously.