As time passes, operators question BA609 appeal

 - July 30, 2007, 9:40 AM

The Bell/Agusta BA609 civil tiltrotor program is moving forward, according to a Bell spokesman, with two more flight-test ships scheduled to join the two already flying over the next 18 months. However, there are some indications that the program, now into its 10th year, is beginning to falter.

Orders, which once stood at a high of 80, have slipped to 70, according to Bell, which confirms 40 customers in 22 countries. About 50 percent of those customers are in North America, with the remainder mainly in Europe. The spokesman said the company received new orders for the tiltrotor at this year’s Paris Air Show, but he could not confirm a specific number or say how many of those were backed by deposits.

Bell would not confirm the identity of any order holders for the program; however, over the years a few have been identified in various media outlets. One-time U.S. and Canadian order-holders for the BA609 reportedly include CHC, Evergreen Helicopters and Petroleum Helicopters. Most of these companies would not comment to AIN or return phone calls seeking comment on the status of their orders.

As the hybrid design was displayed in flight at the Paris Air Show, AIN tried to measure how eager operators–of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft–are to see a civil tiltrotor in service.
Several of the operators AIN interviewed deemed the aircraft’s performance “fabulous,” if only in theory. All expressed little interest, however, in a rotorcraft they find too expensive, too big for use on standard helipads and yet too small for comfortable executive charter. Many knew very little about it. Even the most bullish operators conceded they are in “wait and see” mode.

The BA609 combines helicopter capabilities with airplane speed, which could be highly useful in business aviation. As Aviaxess CEO Frédéric Aguettant put it, “the BA609 is a bridge between two worlds.” Even business jet frequent fliers do not think of helicopters for short legs, he noted. A helicopter operator, Paris-based Aviaxess is also an official sales representative for Bombardier’s Skyjet International block charter program.

Aguettant was not the only operator to sound optimistic about the potential success of the BA609’s design philosophy. “This product has strong potential over the next 20 to 30 years,” Ixair commercial director Mathias Senes told AIN. Ixair operates helicopters and business jets from France.

No Interest From EMS, Special Missions Sector

But enthusiasm about long-term prospects is different from keen interest in how an existing offering (the BA609) can flesh out the bottom line. Operators’ main concern about the tiltrotor seems to hinge on price, which is expected to be in the $16 to $20 million range. Bell/Agusta says, “Twenty-five months before planned delivery, a firm price will be established and presented to the customer with an option to accept or cancel.”

“At a much higher price than that of a similarly sized business jet, where is the business model?” Aguettant wondered. Senes noted, “It would be difficult for us to substantiate investing so much money in a six- to nine-seater,” he said. For the same amount, he noted, his company could buy one helicopter and two light jets. In other words, one BA609 in operation makes three assets (in value) unavailable to other missions. “So it does not bring as much flexibility as it claims,” Senes concluded. He suggested that the hourly operating cost would likely be between $5,000 and at least $8,000.

Another French-based operator, Proteus Hélicoptères, sounded slightly more open to the possibility of using the tiltrotor: “The big question is what kind of new market for air transport we can create, based upon the BA609’s performance.” On one hand, he pointed out that the European market for helicopter air transport is essentially stagnant and needs fresh air. On the other hand, he is concerned about the acquisition and operating costs of a tiltrotor.

TAG Aviation, which has more than 100 jets under management, said customer interest in the tiltrotor will determine how the company proceeds with the aircraft. So far, he said, “We haven’t looked at the 609 because we haven’t had an owner request that we look at the 609 yet.”

So are offshore operators more anxious to acquire a BA609? Apparently not, judging by AIN’s findings. Heli-Union’s director of operations, Olivier de Marolles, said he knew too little about the aircraft to answer AIN’s questions.

According to a CHC spokesperson, the Texas- and Scotland-based firm had orders for the BA609 “about seven or eight years ago” but eventually applied the deposits to other aircraft types. The company is now in “wait and see” mode. Another major offshore operator in the North Sea, which declined to be named, said there has been “no assessment of the aircraft yet.” He cited a lack of data on reliability.

In Italy, offshore operator Elilario’s director of operations, Mario Farina, said he had some difficulty imagining operating the BA609. He expressed concern about the cost per seat mile. However, he acknowledged that the range is an interesting feature for rigs farther offshore in the future.

Evergreen Helicopters president David Roth confirmed to AIN that his company was interested in the tiltrotor. In fact, it placed an order for the BA609, in 1997. At the time the company was quoted a price of $8 million and a 2001 delivery date. Roth said Evergreen remains excited about tiltrotor technology and its ability to serve the offshore oil and gas industry in high-priority roles such as medevac, but not at any price. Asked if Evergreen would still be interested in a BA609 if the price reaches the $20 million range, he said, “No.”
Is the tiltrotor a good candidate for emergency medical service operations? More than one operator gave the BA609 a thumbs down. A spokesman for Swiss rescue operator Rega said the organization is not interested in the BA609 as either a helicopter or an airplane. “As
a helicopter, it is too heavy for our landing spots, and we already operate three airplanes– Challenger 604s,” he told AIN. Hospital landing sites in Switzerland, located mainly on building rooftops, are limited to rotorcraft with a landing weight of no more than 10,000 pounds. Another problem would be the powerful downwash, he added.

Geneva-based Swiftcopters managing director Fabiano Forte also voiced doubt about the size of the prepared area a BA609 will need to take off and land. This can become an issue in mountainous areas such as Switzerland or for wealthy individuals who want to land on their property. Elilario’s Farina asserted that current oil-rig helipads are too small for the BA609.

Most operators AIN surveyed said they believe the ongoing teething troubles of the military V-22 Osprey are having a negative effect on the BA609. Several said that these troubles affect the BA609’s credibility. The U.S. Marine Corps’ first combat deployment of V-22 Osprey tiltrotors to Iraq begins this fall, and surely anyone with an interest in buying a BA609 will
be watching closely for any performance issues that raise questions about the tiltrotor configuration the two machines share. The Bell spokesman noted, however, that the aircraft are not comparable aside from the fact that they are both “tiltrotors,” and he expressed confidence that the V-22 would perform well in theatre.

The passenger cabin has been a concern as well. “It is so narrow that claustrophobic people should not ride,” Forte asserted. Ixair’s Senes agreed. However, Aviaxess’ Aguettant deemed the interior volume acceptable.

Several fixed-wing aircraft operators, including French-based Pan Européenne Air Services, Madrid-based Gestair and Luxembourg-based turboprop fractional ownership firm JetFly, said they did not know enough about the BA609 to discuss its potential. German-based Aero-Dienst was understood to hold an order several years ago, but a spokesman last month told AIN that his company “has no business with the tiltrotor.” Finally, an active lobbyist in the European business aviation industry said he simply never hears anything about the BA609. 

More Funding Possible for BA609 Program

AgustaWestland CEO Giuseppe Orsi is urging Bell to accept more money from the Italian company to fund the protracted BA609 tiltrotor program. The current share of each company’s stake in the program is apparently in disagreement, however. Questioned by AIN, Bell maintains it has a 75-percent stake in the BA609, with Agusta holding the remaining 25 percent. Agusta insisted to AIN that it has owned 40 percent of the program for the past two years.

Certification of the innovative hybrid aircraft is now pegged for late 2010 or early 2011. Orsi said that development has been accelerated and is now moving forward at full speed.
It remains to be seen in the coming months whether Bell and Agusta will agree on more Italian participation in the joint venture. Agusta expects that if it has a greater stake, the program’s pace might accelerate. “The pace of development has been related to the level of funding,” Orsi explained. The program has been consistently delayed, before and since the first flight in 2003. AIN understands that Bell has been slow, if not reluctant, to speed up the BA609’s development because its focus has been on fixing the military Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey’s teething troubles and getting it into service.

“We have to discuss our investment in private, as good partners,” Orsi continued. Bell officials at a Paris Air Show press conference would not comment. However, a Bell spokesman later told AIN, “Nothing has changed with our AgustaWestland relationship. We have had a relationship with them for 50 years; however, as with any business you are in a constant state of evaluation or reevaluation of circumstances and whether it becomes advantageous to change them.”

AgustaWestland has long been lobbying for an expanded role in the venture. Last year Orsi publicly offered to buy a larger share of the program with an eye toward speeding development. In the past he has said that he thinks the aircraft’s future is mainly in Europe, where comparatively shorter distances between major cities would allow the BA609 to offer a more cost-effective challenge to fixed-wing aircraft operations.

Orsi insists that Bell/Agusta is now committed to the 2010/2011 deadline. “By the next Paris Air Show [2009], we will release the full final specifications, and at the Paris Air Show in 2011 we will have a customer BA609 on static display here,” he pledged. Nevertheless, Orsi has set his sights on the 2025 market, “when customers will not want to cope with helicopter limitations any longer.” He sees the BA609 as a first step in that direction.

Two BA609s have now logged a combined 200 flight hours. This figure rises slowly because detailed checks and analysis are performed after every flight. One prototype has been undergoing flight tests since March 2003 in Arlington, Texas. The other one has been operating since last November from Cameri, an Italian Air Force base near Milan. They have reached speeds of 310 knots in forward flight and 35 knots rearwards. A third aircraft is slated to join them early next year.    –T.D.