Dutch start-up plans helo service

 - September 28, 2006, 5:30 AM

Dutch start-up Helinet will offer scheduled helicopter flights among cities in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The Amsterdam-based company first wants to build heliports at or near office areas outside city centers. Under a joint venture with Dutch government-owned public transport operator Connexxion, the company is due to start operations with Eurocopter EC 130s in the second quarter of next year.

“[The biggest challenge] is to convince local authorities to accept a heliport, because it is new to them and our operation can bring up to 30 movements a day,” founder and CEO Aernoud Dekker told AIN. He is now talking to 15 municipalities and hopes to extend the network to 22 locations in the next five or six years. Priority locations include Brussels, Amsterdam and cities in between–Rotterdam, The Hague and Antwerp.

Three six-passenger EC 130s are on order, one of them a backup. “Noise is the most important issue, so the choice was clear,” Dekker said. Each helicopter will fly 1,700 hours per year.

The joint venture will apply for its own air operator’s certificate. Maintenance work will be outsourced to established operator Heli Holland.

Pricing is based on road distances, at E2.25 per kilometer ($4.50 per statute mile). The primary draw of the Connexxion Helinet service is the short travel time. For example, a Web-based route planner computes that the drive between Amsterdam and Rotterdam takes one hour, 1.5 hours in traffic, Dekker said. Flight time between the two cities is 35 minutes. Travel time can be guaranteed because Connexxion Helinet flights will not be subject to airport traffic and will avoid airspace congestion by operating between 500 and 3,000 feet.

AIN asked Dekker how he can be so sure the the economic equation will work, since so many attempts at establishing scheduled helicopter service have failed. “Look at the successful operations such as Heli Air Monaco,” Dekker countered. The idea is to fly far enough that a helicopter saves significant time over road travel but not so far as to compete with fixed-wing aircraft or high-speed trains.

There will thus be no nonstop service between Brussels and Amsterdam; rather, there will be three stops between the two, with one helicopter departing from each town every hour.

Heliports will include a small terminal building that will offer passengers check-in positions, Internet access, restrooms and a snack bar. One heliport will cost about E500,000 ($625,000).

Flights will be single-pilot and VFR. Night VFR is not allowed in the Netherlands for helicopters. Decker conceded that operating only during the day will limit the schedule in the winter.

Helinet’s choice of a single-engine helicopter, rather than a twin, was driven by cost. Dekker mentioned one drawback: European rules do not permit rooftop operations by single-engine helicopters.