Electronic Use, Improved Seating Key to Passenger Comfort on Helicopters

 - September 2, 2014, 4:45 AM
Although a new EASA rule allows use of personal electronic devices in flight–at the discretion of the operator–passengers flying to oil platforms should not expect permission to use such devices.

An EASA rule that takes effect next month opens the door to offshore oil-and-gas helicopter passengers’ using personal electronic devices (PED), and rotorcraft manufacturers say their designs are compatible with the use of PEDs in flight. However, European operators seem unenthusiastic about implementing the change despite its appeal to passengers.

Annex 4 of Part-CAT will grant exceptions to the general principle–no PED use in flight–so that, if it wants to, an operator can allow the use of PEDs such as iPods during all phases of flight. PEDs that transmit, such as cellphones, can also be allowed except during taxi, takeoff and landing–again at the operator’s discretion.

Mickael Melaye, senior operational marketing manager for oil and gas applications at Airbus Helicopters, pointed out that many offshore pilots use iPads and that using a PED would not be a technical issue. Spokesmen from AgustaWestland and Sikorsky also confirmed that a personal electronic device would not present a technical issue. A Bell Helicopter spokeswoman, however, said that such devices should be preloaded and in airplane mode. “Unlike airlines, we do not currently have the capability to eliminate instrument interference for wireless signals,” she said.

Three out of four major OEMs have similar views on onboard Wi-Fi. For Bell, Wi-Fi connectivity is one of the options, “as we continue to evolve the passenger experience to assure a best-in-class solution.” The AgustaWestland spokesman agreed, noting that connectivity could be provided with satellite systems. “While this requires dedicated avionics that add weight and cost, technology evolution can make Wi-Fi solutions feasible,” he said. Dan Hunter, Sikorsky’s director for commercial systems and services, said the company already offers onboard Wi-Fi in other applications, with a weight penalty of 50 to 70 pounds. He cited growing passenger demand for a level of comfort closer to that of an airliner. Airbus’s Melaye, conversely, said his company does not see this demand from its customers.

Operators in Europe remain cautious about onboard use of PEDs. Citing the risk of loose objects flying around the cabin in turbulence or a hard landing, a Héli-Union operations engineer told AIN that the operator (which is active in West Africa and Myanmar) will continue to prohibit the use of any PED in flight.

He mentioned, nevertheless, a study of the use of iPads by pilots. “The new regulation officially authorizes such devices in the cockpit; it used to be quite fuzzy,” he said.

The Step Change in Safety organization, which encompasses North Sea stakeholders, will probably not change its own policy of no PEDs. A spokesperson referred to “the possibility of interference with helicopter avionics systems” and “being able to hear safety announcements.” Passengers are required to declare their electronic devices at the security scan and they are placed, switched off, into their luggage.

So could North Sea passengers resort to reading a book during the flight? Yes, but within limits, a Step Change in Safety representative answered. Any reading material brought onto the aircraft must fit in the 5- by 6-inch Velcro pocket on the right leg of an immersion suit as a safety precaution when passengers embark or disembark. A newspaper or book, if dropped during boarding, could be sucked into the engine air intake, the representative said.

Héli-Union allows passengers to carry books, magazines and so on, but they are urged to hold them tight when near the aircraft.

More Comfortable Seating Options

It appears few passengers will be able to make use of PEDs in flight, but improved seating offers another avenue of hope for a more pleasant ride to and from work. The possible addition of a toilet on board, too, should enhance comfort on longer flights.

On an Airbus EC225e operating a two-hour flight, for example, the number of passengers is limited to 10, opening room for a lavatory, Melaye explained. The cabin change might, however, necessitate modifying immersion suits to provide more openings.

“Toilets would be an option for future aircraft that need to be uniquely configured for longer missions offshore,” the Bell spokeswoman confirmed. Her AgustaWestland counterpart said they can be evaluated for long-range operations on the largest types.

The EC225 has featured a new Fischer seat design with improved materials and shapes since 2012. The design provides a better knee angle, said Melaye, adding that the EC175 will have similar seats and they are retrofittable to other helicopters.

After discussions with operators and unions, Airbus has modified the EC225’s cabin layout so that, among other changes, the entryway between the seats is now 38 inches wide, 15 inches wider than before.

On the EC175, the Héli-Union engineer noted, the seats in the first row are positioned with their backs to the cockpit. “Pilots prefer it when passengers do not have a direct view into their cockpit, because the view can be stressful for the passengers,” he said. He also likes the larger windows. However, he emphasized that comfort is a secondary consideration to practical aspects such as easy ingress and egress.

The Bell 525 will feature 20-inch-wide seats–three inches wider than the typical oil-and-gas configuration standard of 17 inches–and large windows, the spokesperson said. As for the Sikorsky S-92’s cabin, it can be described as stand-up and its seats are similar to those in airliners, Hunter said.

The modern design of the AW139 and AW189 produces the largest unobstructed cabins in their respective classes, according to AgustaWestland.