French project aims to reduce costs for helicopter operators

 - August 28, 2007, 6:26 AM

Several French-based companies, universities and local authorities have joined forces in a project to reduce helicopter support costs by 30 percent. Thirteen small firms, all located around Montauban, near Toulouse, are participating in the $14 million Helimaintenance project.

The project is aimed at maintenance of military and civil helicopters. The small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs)–many of which are subcontractors for Airbus–already specialize in aerospace but want to diversify.

The association consists of SMEs, the Montauban chamber of commerce and local authorities supporting the project. Members include maintenance and completion firm Ixair (Ixcore group), engine manufacturer Turbomeca, state-owned research center Onera, EADS’ tests and services subsidiary and several universities. Phillipe Thenaisie, Ixcore’s director of aeronautical development and president of the Helimaintenance association, said Eurocopter is not involved in the project but is keeping an eye on it.

The 13 SMEs have formed a consortium called Ixairco that will concentrate on establishing maintenance, repair and overhaul activities for Eurocopter Ecureuils, Dauphins, Gazelles and Pumas. Operations are starting this fall in temporary buildings at Montauban airport. The permanent 16,000-sq-ft hangars will be completed late next year. “This activity will be in ‘cruise-flight’ mode in 2009 or 2010,” Thenaisie said.

The research and development part of the project will establish a maintenance and obsolescence observation post to monitor fleets of several hundred aircraft. For example, it will work to anticipate possible out-of-stock situations. The observation post opens this fall and is scheduled to be fully operational in 2009.

The association has identified several potential ways to cut costs by preventing or anticipating costly maintenance issues. In addition to investigating how to reduce the upfront investment in tools, Helimaintenance members will try to
cut costs by reducing the number of man-hours necessary for a given task. “We are also moving to on-condition maintenance–as opposed to periodic checks,” Thenaisie said.

The association believes operators should assess the value of repair versus replacement in individual cases to keep costs in check. Finally, Helimaintenance members want to find solutions to ensure that operators pay a fair price when replacing a component between overhauls. “When you buy a new component with full potential while your next overhaul is 200 flight hours later, you should  pay only for those 200 hours,” Thenaisie explained.

The project’s $14 million budget (U10 million) will be divided into three parts. Almost $8 million will go to the maintenance and obsolescence observation post. Another $4 million will be invested in maintenance buildings and equipment. The remaining $2 million will support planning and civil engineering to create the maintenance site at Montauban airport.

Some funds will likely come from local and/or state subsidies and loans. Thenaisie said funding on the European level is possible and that it would involve including partners from other countries. He made it clear that Helimaintenance welcomes companies from other countries.