Helicopters carry the day in Latin America

 - September 12, 2006, 9:41 AM

There is “lots of demand” for civil helicopters in Latin America, according to Danny Maldonado, v-p of Latin American sales for Bell Helicopter.

He cited several reasons for the booming demand: new businesses moving into Latin America; a more stable political climate and improving economy in many countries;
expanding offshore oil and gas business; and replacement of an aging fleet. Those selling their older helicopters are generally replacing them with new, he added, and demand for used helicopters remains healthy.

Lionel Sinai, manager of marketing and communications for Eurocopter Mexico, generally agrees, at least as far his area of responsibility–Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela–is concerned.

Most of the demand for civil helicopters in Latin America comes from private, corporate and the offshore oil and gas industry.

In the larger cities, where traffic backs up for miles and rampant crime prompts security concerns, helicopter transport is no longer considered a luxury but a necessity for business executives and wealthy individuals.

This is particularly true in São Paulo, Brazil’s economic heart and a place where a 20-mile trip from Congonhas International to the city center can take two hours. “It’s the best city in the world for helicopters,” said Kurt Robinson, v-p of product support at Robinson Helicopter.

While exact numbers are not available, best estimates are that the helicopter fleet in São Paulo numbers nearly 1,000. With demand for its product growing in the region, Eurocopter established subsidiary Helibras in São Paulo. The company has its own AS 350 assembly line. Helibras also operates a training center and maintains an engineering modifications department.

Enstrom, the Menominee, Mich. manufacturer, has been in business for 47 years and began delivering piston single helicopters in Latin America in the mid-1980s. While the company has some 40 piston helicopters operating in Latin America, it’s the company’s only turbine helicopter that is expected to make a real impact on this market. The 480B is a five-passenger turbine single capable of 115 knots. According to marketing and sales program manager Mike Roer, “It’s about the equivalent of Bell’s 206B3. But at $810,000 typically equipped, it’s about $200,000 cheaper.”

Enstrom recently added Bringer to its dealership network and delivered a 480B to the São Paulo company. A number of 480Bs are in service in Mexico, “where it’s an ideal machine for hot-and-high flying.” Enstrom expects to deliver two 480Bs to customers in Costa Rica before year-end.

Mexico City has many of the same transportation problems as São Paulo and an active and growing helicopter fleet, though not yet the size of that in São Paulo. According to Sinai, the official line is that there are 400 helicopters in service in
Mexico City. But in a city 7,570 feet above sea level, the requirement is for helicopters with exceptional hot-and-high performance.

Sinai described Mexico City as a “free-flight” area for helicopters in which more and more new buildings are going up with helipads. “There are already 75 helipads, and the sky is filled with helicopters. They’re like aerial cowboys.” Meanwhile, he said, in the wake of two recent crashes–involving a Bell 407 and an Agusta 109–the government is expected to issue flight restrictions in the near future.

Sinai said Bell has the major market share in Mexico, but he noted that Eurocopter’s AS 350B3 is becoming the helicopter of choice for first responders–police, emergency medical service and traffic patrol, as well as search-and-rescue. “In the past three years,” said Sinai, “the B3 has won 90 percent of all tenders in those categories.”

Both companies see a major growth area in offshore support of the oil and gas industries, Bell with its 15-passenger 412 and Eurocopter with its AS 350 and EC 145.

AgustaWestland last month signed a five-year distribution agreement with Aerolíneas Ejecutivas of Mexico. The deal includes an initial contract for five helicopters, including two A109 Powers, and options for 37 more over the next five years.

“As of right now,” said Maldonado, “there are few regulations that would affect helicopter sales in Latin America,” although he admitted, “there has been some noise about noise.”

In general, though, it’s a good market, but focused on a few countries, Brazil and Mexico, and more recently Guatemala. But, said Maldonado, “things change.”