Never say never again: Bond Helicopters returns

 - April 3, 2007, 9:04 AM

The prodigal sons of the North Sea oil-support community, brothers Stephen and Peter Bond, have returned to the fray more than eight weeks early. The first operational flights by Bond Offshore Helicopters (BOH) took off last month. Managing director Geoff Williams said there are several reasons behind the move, but it was always their intention to start flying in advance of the contracted date of August 1.
“It’s partly an accelerated development program, but enthusiastic teamwork from our people and market demand have played their part as well.”

Williams has more than 25 years of helicopter operations experience in Africa, Australia, southeast Asia and Europe. He joined Bond from CHC Australia (formerly Lloyd Helicopters), where he was executive director. He previously held senior management positions in technical, engineering, logistics and projects within CHC.
His extensive engineering experience across a broad range of twin-engine helicopter types includes work on products from Eurocopter, Sikorsky and Bell. Williams was well known to the Bond brothers for more than 10 years before joining the company, the three having worked together when Lloyd Helicopters was part of the Bond Group.

In for the Long Term

Bond now holds a 10-year contract to provide crew-change services to BP Exploration facilities in the Central and Northern North Sea, and west of Shetland. Previously, the industry convention was to commit to no more than five years.

In the interim, the company will be route-proving and carrying out ad hoc project work for BP and others. Williams explained, “When we made the industry aware of the availability, BP showed an interest. But we are not only providing others with similar services. We’re talking about work that might begin later this year and beyond.”

Deliveries of Bond’s first Eurocopter Super Puma AS 332L Mk IIs, which cost around $17.1 million each, began last month. Three of them were expected to be in place at press time, with a further two due to arrive this month.

A recruiting program has yielded 70 staff members, including 30 pilots and 25 maintenance technicians. These employees have undergone training and type familiarization at Eurocopter’s base near Marseilles, in southern France, and at the adjacent Helisim flight simulation center. The company has invested more than $3.1 million in upgrading existing maintenance, workshop and office facilities on the east side of Aberdeen Airport, Scotland.

The Aberdeen headquarters will also provide administrative support for a 10-year, 24/7 search- and-rescue contract that was awarded by BP Exploration in May and for which Bond is currently recruiting a further 40 employees, including pilots, rescue crewmembers and maintenance technicians. One of two more Super Puma Mk IIs, which are due for delivery during the second half of next year, will be based on a production platform in the Central North Sea. The other will fly from Scatsta, in the Shetland Islands, 200 miles north of Aberdeen.

These two aircraft will be fitted with a four-axis auto-hover system, significantly enhancing their ability to operate in severe weather conditions and at night. They will also have a dual hoist system, customized avionics and SAR equipment.

Making Waves

The arrival of BOH has had a direct effect on the two resident North Sea operators, Bristow and CHC Scotia (which absorbed the original Bond Helicopters, among others, in 1999). Both have since announced redundancy programs, and Bristow, having carried out successful offshore SAR trials for BP under the code-name “Project Jigsaw”–and claiming expertise in the field–was particularly disappointed not to win the bidding for that contract.

After the demise of Bond Helicopters, and after several years of cutthroat competition fueled by falling oil prices, the pair had negotiated fees that they saw as more realistic. The oil companies felt pressured into agreeing to this, however, and were eager to see another operator break what they regarded as a duopoly. Although none would admit to actually bankrolling the newcomer, the other operators view the length of the contract as tantamount to the same thing. When you bid for oil company contracts, you have to be prepared to play hardball.

The BOH plan, according to Williams, “will be to operate seven days a week with scheduled and unscheduled flights to BP production facilities and drilling rigs, both in the Central and Northern North Sea and to the west of Shetland. We anticipate six to eight flights a day.”

He is not concerned at the general feeling within the North Sea community that the area is past its peak, production-wise.

“The prospect of a 10-year contract and extension options, in an industry where three to five years is the norm, offered the basis on which we could return to the North Sea and commit to new-technology aircraft,” said Williams. The opportunity coincided with a general feeling of unrest over a recent increase in rates and what the oil companies perceived as a reduced level of service. The Bond brothers were approached by several oil companies to see if they were interested in returning to the North Sea.

“There is still an important market to be serviced there, and we’re going after a share,” Williams explained. “It all adds up to a good time to be back in the business, as our successes to date show.”

BOH is not settling for the BP contracts, however long term they may be. Said Williams, “We are looking at other opportunities, but it is too soon to go into details. We are in a position to make rapid decisions and move quickly when the right opportunities arise.” New business will also mean job security for Bond’s workforce–CHC and Bristow have both announced redundancy programs since the news of Bond’s contract win.

Growing SAR Market

Search-and-rescue is a growing market in the UK, both ashore and afloat. Four out of 12 SAR stations around its coastline are manned by Bristow crews, and there is talk of making further changes–perhaps as significant as reversing the proportions. So it is hardly surprising that BOH is keeping an eye on that prize.

“Bond management and staff have considerable experience using helicopters for SAR,” Williams said. “Following the award of the long-term BP SAR contract, we will be endeavoring to develop our SAR role.”

Regarding choice of aircraft, BOH clearly sees its future as lying with the Super Puma II. However Sikorsky’s S-92 now has offshore customers, including North Sea rival CHC Scotia. Williams said his company reviewed the latest generation of large twin-engine helicopters in detail–the S-92, the EC 225 and AS 332L Mk II. “At the time of the bid and award of the BP contract in 2002, there were still timing uncertainties over the introduction of the first two, so we ordered the best available aircraft–the Super Puma AS 332L Mk II. Bond introduced Mk II Super Pumas in 1999, and today we still believe they are the most proven aircraft for the oil and gas industry. Williams said BOH has an option to introduce the EC 225 if appropriate.

After Bond left the North Sea fray, BHL and CHC separately negotiated what they call reasonable rates of recompense for their work. AIN asked Williams if his company is undercutting those rates and if those rates are sustainable.

“Between the time that Bond management left the North Sea in 1999 and the award of the BP crew-change contract in December 2002, there had been a significant increase in charter rates. With our long-term contract, what we’re doing is introducing new-technology aircraft with improved payload and speed and at rates that are competitive with those of the other operators. We believe we will be giving better performance and more value for money, and we are confident that the level of service will sustain and develop our position in the market.”