Helicopter tour operators thrive in South Africa

 - January 31, 2007, 8:24 AM

While U.S. helicopter tourism operators have been under continuing pressure from regulators and environmental groups over the past few years, their colleagues in less restrictive legislative environments have continued to make a decent living. Charter companies in South Africa have been doing particularly well at offering “flightseeing” packages, even though the gloss of a weak U.S. dollar has long since faded.

Over the past few years, National Airways (NAC) has become, through a process of acquisition and expansion, the largest onshore helicopter operator in South Africa. While the company’s primary focus is aircraft sales–it sells the Robinson R22, Bell/Agusta AB139 and the entire Gulfstream line–it also offers maintenance and refurbishment, avionics and parts sales and support and flight operations that include charter, contract flying and pilot training.

Rowland Grainger, operations director of the company’s helicopter charter division, explained that the company’s helicopter service is thriving. “The (South African) rand exchange rate is not as good as it was,” he said, “6.5 to the dollar as opposed to 11, two years ago, but we still have a good charter and ‘flightseeing’ turnover.”

He said there is a strong demand for flightseeing trips, especially from coastal cities such as Cape Town and Durban where waterfront developments have included provisions for helipads. Visitors take seats on such flights as well but primarily favor trips into major game parks like the Kruger.

NAC’s Makana subsidiary operates from a four-spot heliport with hangar on the newly redeveloped Victoria & Alfred waterfront area of Cape Town. Its resident fleet consists of a JetRanger and Long-Ranger (both fitted with floats), and a full 90 percent of the two helicopters’ work is tourism-related. They run scenic flights around Table Mountain and along the coast, both to the south toward the Cape of Good Hope and north to Table Bay and the notorious Robben Island.

Expansion is also in the air. “We have just been awarded a contract to operate from a new heliport within a similar waterfront development in Durban; a Jet- Ranger is there already, ready for its first launch this month, and we might supplement that with an AStar. We expect tourism flying to become a big part of that operation as well.”

To obtain permission to set up a helipad, an operator must apply for the necessary clearances, conduct an environmental impact study and submit the results. But NAC’s position is strengthened by the public’s ambivalent view toward helicopters. Grainger explained that helicopters are still perceived, largely, as utility vehicles.

“We operate air ambulances in South Africa as well, but, to a lot of people, helicopters are still something of a novelty. So we don’t encounter the same resistance that handicaps operators in the U.S. and Europe. We also do a lot of community work and that helps to keep us on their side.”

NAC’s headquarters is in Lanseria, to the west of Johannesburg, where the company bases as many as 18 helicopters. Four or five more fly from Cape Town, three from Durban and one from the airport at Nelspruit.

NAC has won more business by offering time-pressed overseas visitors direct flights to select, often private, game lodges from the new international airport at Kruger-Mpumalanga–only 18 miles from the nearest park gate but at least 248 miles from the next closest airport at Johannesburg.

Compared with those in Europe, regulations in South Africa are relaxed. But tourism is such an important overseas industry for the South African economy that operators such as NAC are allowed the freedom to conduct business in a way that most U.S. and European firms can only envy.