French lobby urges more flexibility for helicopters

 - November 8, 2006, 8:01 AM

Industry lobbying group the Union Française de l’Hélicoptère (UFH) is stepping up its efforts to improve public acceptance of helicopter operations in France. During a conference last month jointly organized by the group and the DGAC–the French civil aviation authority–the groups emphasized that France leaves little room for helicopters (a paradoxical situation in a country that houses leading manufacturers of civil helicopters and turboshaft engines Eurocopter and Turbomeca) and urged more widespread acceptance of rotorcraft.

The conference, titled “Helicopter in France, debates for a sustainable and civic development,” drew about 300 attendees at the DGAC’s headquarters beside the Paris heliport. At that facility and elsewhere in the country, the UFH is meeting resistance to helicopters from ecologists and local resident associations.

French regulations are so strict that flying over Paris (even by EMS rotorcraft) is prohibited. The city is relatively small, with about 40 square sm, and overflight of neighboring towns is allowed. However, even then operators have to follow strict routes.

The UFH is lobbying for another heliport near Paris. Several speakers tried to make local and national politicians aware that most major cities are more welcoming of helicopters. UFH president Gérard David said that in São Paulo, Brazil, a city particularly accepting of helicopters, businesspeople fly from factory to office using rooftop helipads.

Olivier de l’Estoile, former president of the French chapter of the European Business Aviation Association, noted that U.S. authorities re-admitted helicopters to New York City’s airspace shortly after 9/11.

Eric Fraissinet, representing operators, voiced concerns about the growing burdens that small and medium-size enterprises face, asserting that fuel prices, taxes and the increasing complexity of government regulation threaten the very existence of such operators. He added that maintenance costs, including the price of parts, also
affect profitability. He thus pleaded for some state support to reduce fuel costs, limit the number of fees and impede what he called “regulatory inflation.” The operators are engaged in discussions with authorities to address this issue, he said.

Dr. Nicolas Letellier, president of the French association of medical helicopter users, has been advocating more helicopter IFR operations. “The technology is ready for all-weather but the rules are not,” he said during the conference. He seeks enhanced infrastructure, such as well equipped rooftop pads on hospitals. He also wants a network of low-altitude IFR airways linking hospitals.

Satellite-based approaches promise to make Letellier’s wish list a reality. The DGAC is conducting experiments in three French airports. In Besançon, for example, the state’s air rescue arm, the Sécurité Civile, has requested a GPS approach to make the hospital more accessible. Raymond Rosso, deputy to the head of the air navigation directorate inside the DGAC, pledged that helicopter IFR flights can be developed in the near future.

Jean Souquet, an executive at the southeastern branch of the DGAC, said that in France people tend to consider the helicopter a dangerous means of transportation and consequently fear them. Complaints are frequent, Souquet said.

Last June France signed a charter for helicopter flights over the Saint-Tropez area. According to DGAC figures, there are between 40 and 50 “occasional dropping zones” around Saint-Tropez. Under the agreement, operators will use authorized landing surfaces. In return, local and aviation authorities agreed that real heliports should be built.

While this represents an improvement, the situation remains tenuous. Although the helicopter industry contributes significantly to the economy, operators continue to face many hurdles. According to the UFH, there are 450 commercial helicopters
in France, 73 percent of them turbine-powered.

Therefore, David lobbied for “the acknowledgement of the helicopter’s role in the economy and the community.” The UFH also wants regulations to be suited
to “operational realities.” In response to this remark, two DGAC speakers urged helicopter industry representatives to attend working group meetings during rulemaking processes.

Dominique Orbec, leading the committee of manufacturers, used the conference to try to counter the popular view that the helicopter is a noisy toy for the rich and compared the noise of an EC 155 on approach (68 dB) to that of a van in the street (72 dB). He reminded the audience that helicopter manufacturers have made significant progress on cutting noise. Blades, engines, air intakes and tail rotors have all contributed to reduce the noise footprint by half over the past 20 years.

Orbec, a Eurocopter executive, also emphasized the environmental objectives of the industry. In terms of noise, the target is 7 to 9 dB below current ICAO standards. In terms of pollution, Orbec said the industry’s goal is to reduce emissions by 70 percent in 10 years.

Media coverage of the conference showed that the UFH’s efforts have been only partially successful. Several newspapers allotted as much space to the complaints of local resident associations as they allotted to the conference. Le Parisien quoted Luc Blanchard, the president of Val de Seine Vert, as saying, “The helicopter is a profusion of energy and nuisances; local residents are fed up.”

Another local daily, the Paris edition of 20 Minutes, ran a story about the demands of civil helicopter operators. The story quoted Blanchard as complaining about noise and fuel burn close to the ground. The UFH since stated that representatives of Blanchard’s association did not attend the conference.

Also quoted in 20 Minutes was the right-wing mayor of the 15th arrondissement of Paris, home to the city’s heliport. He said that the heliport’s site has reached its traffic limit in terms of environmental impact.

In the city’s council, the “Verts” ecologist party in 2005 suggested closing the heliport. The amendment was rejected. They now favor limiting traffic to medical operations.

The speech by Dominique Perben, the French Minister of Transport, also was hardly encouraging. He said that he favored a second heliport near Paris but did not commit to a schedule. He insisted on the need for improving safety. Les Echos financial daily reported the Minister saying, “Twenty-five accidents and 19 fatalities in 2004; 34 accidents and 10 fatalities in 2005–there have been too many crashes in recent years.”