With the successes of the fractional model for business jet ownership, it was perhaps only a matter of time before a national fractional helicopter operation developed. Woodstock, Ga.-based Whirl Helicopters is basing its planned operation on the four-seat Robinson R44. Starting modestly, Whirl’s founders, Kenneth Starnes and Brad Barnett, currently own one of the popular rotorcraft and have an agreement for deliveries of five more over the next eight months.
The current proposed plan calls for customers to purchase one-eighth shares of the R44s for about $62,000 for a 36-month term. “At the end of three years you are going to have a guaranteed buyback,” said Starnes. “We’re going to give you back a little more than $25,000, which is going to come back to you in the form of selling your share back to us [less depreciation]. You can walk away, you can re-invest it in another ship, whatever you want to do.” Whirl said it will reserve one share from each helicopter for its own use.
A monthly management fee of nearly $1,000 will cover fixed costs such as maintenance, hangar, pilot, insurance and administrative costs such as advertising and scheduling. Actual flight costs are an additional $60 per hour, and customers are guaranteed 100 hours of helicopter use a year. At that rate, the numbers work out to approximately $250 per hour of flight. That is comparable to the national average hourly rental rate for the R22, the R44’s smaller sibling.
A Regional Network
Operations are expected to begin in Atlanta in June, with service from Peachtree-DeKalb, Fulton County and Cobb County Airports. Expansion is expected to follow in cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Manassas, Va. “We are going to keep it more of a Southeast base at least for the year,” said Starnes.
The company is anticipating that growth will be rapid and hopes to add a new city each quarter.
Planning for an eventual nationwide network, Barnett said the company intends to allow owners flexibility in terms of how they use their hours. “The beauty of what we are doing is that we will have interchange agreements among the different areas, which will allow our customers to go to, say, Orlando or Charlotte or New York, and use that helicopter in that location just as though it was their helicopter that they have a fraction of at their home base,” he said.
The company also intends to copy another popular innovation from the jet charter industry and roll out a flight card program. The “Whirl Card” is aimed at those seeking helicopter usage without a long-term commitment.
Whirl is looking ahead to offering turbine models eventually. Among the rotorcraft under consideration are the Eurocopter EC 120 and the Robinson R66.
Starnes expects Whirl to turn a profit within the first six months of operation.
While Whirl hopes to be the first nationwide fractional helicopter provider, there are others that operate regionally. Heliflite Shares, which serves the Northeast from Newark Liberty International Airport, recently formed a strategic partnership with charter operator Sentient Jet. In exchange for on-demand helicopter service to regional airports for Sentient members, Heliflite customers will receive access to Sentient’s jet membership program.