British International thinks big with scheduled tiltrotor service

 - May 29, 2008, 9:55 AM

British International has ambitions to introduce scheduled services in the UK within the next 10 years using the proposed Bell/Agusta BA619 tiltrotor airliner. The company’s managing director, David Hayler, told AIN “The future regional airliner is the tiltrotor,” and his 10-year vision sees use of a 19-seat stretched development of the BA609, soon to begin flight trials. For its part, Bell has not committed to any such stretch tiltrotor beyond the artist’s conception stage.

The airline (and its predecessor, British Airways Helicopters) has been operating scheduled helicopter services between the southeastern tip of the English mainland and the Isles of Scilly since 1974, making that the longest-lived scheduled helicopter airline service in the world. The three-millionth passenger was carried last August. Operated by Sikorsky S-61Ns, the service has thrived and returned profits because it is one of few routes in the world where the helicopter has a clear advantage over other types of transport–including fixed-wing aircraft.

Indeed, the airline faces competition from a carrier that operates de Havilland Canada Twin Otters and Britten-Norman Islanders, but both types are prone to delays caused by the strong winds that can sweep across the mainland airfields from which they operate. Far less constrained by such weather conditions, the British International S-61Ns routinely fly Cat I approaches using GPS.

Under new ownership since May 2000, British International has been considering the addition of new scheduled helicopter services and has been evaluating other helicopter models with which to launch an operation between Cardiff (the Welsh capital) and London. The Eurocopter Super Puma was soon eliminated on the grounds that its cabin is too small. By contrast, Hayler is clearly impressed by
the roominess of the Sikorsky S-92. The AgustaWestland EH 101 also remains a contender, but is considered too large to launch the planned new service.

Rather Hayler foresees a gradual evolution and growth in terms of equipment, starting with charter services operated by the Agusta A109 or Sikorsky S-76. “Essentially you need a development aircraft to start a process that will lead from small helicopters to medium-sized models and ultimately to the tiltrotor,” Hayler said.

Acknowledging the fact that freeway and railroad links to the nation’s capital are too slow for today’s business travelers, the Welsh Development Agency is conscious of the need to provide fast and reliable air service between Cardiff and London. So with funding voted by the National Assembly, the City Council built a heliport that is operated under contract by Veritair, a company acquired by British International in May 2000.

Veritair not only operates the new heliport but also provides a new reservation service for British International, which is leading to a Web-based booking system. Whereas the airport serving Cardiff is some 20 miles to the west, the heliport is close to the part of the city where extensive development is under way. This “high tech” part of Cardiff is to be served by a network of automatic taxis as part of a plan to attract inward investment.

While the Penzance-Scillies operation is perceived to be a bus service, Hayler aims to make the Cardiff-London route a premium service, feeding passengers for British Airways as its franchise operator. In return for providing a seamless feed from a fast-developing region, Hayler anticipates that advantageous prorate business-class fares could be negotiated. “A helicopter service would provide real value in terms of time and reliability,” he noted.

However, he also calculates that it costs $2.9 million and takes two years to launch a new scheduled helicopter route, so a series of steps will be taken before offering a full service. Indeed, until the British Airports Authority has been given government approval for the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow (expected imminently), the airport management will not consider the possibility of helicopter services. But with a view to encouraging civil applications for the EH 101, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has commissioned a study of the ATC procedures necessary to permit separate access to Heathrow for helicopters.

The report resulting from this investigation into slot-busting techniques is expected to be available within a year. This fits neatly with Hayler’s plan to launch regular charter flights between Cardiff and London for the business community. British International is conducting a survey of business traveler needs in the hope and expectation that sufficient demand will be forthcoming to make the A109/S-76 charter service viable.

Meanwhile, the S-61N is expected to continue its “bus service” to and from the Scillies for many more years. “It is the DC-3 of the helicopter industry,” Hayler declared. “We are getting huge reliability from a very mature aircraft.” He notes that good spares and support remains available. Should a modernization be considered necessary, Hayler noted that British military Sea Kings have been fitted with composite rotor blades, while avionics and engine upgrades should also be possible. So if the S-92 and the EH 101 are to be added to the British International fleet, they will be put onto premium fare routes, or those that could attract a government or European Union subsidy.