French operator to offer another downtown link

 - July 8, 2008, 8:48 AM

France-based operator Azur Hélicoptère is considering offering helicopter connections between Lyon Saint Exupéry airport and the city’s convention center, which would involve building a helipad downtown. Overflights of populated areas are strictly regulated in Europe, so the operator would use the Rhône River as a route. Other links would be offered to and from Lyon Bron business airport and the neighboring exhibition center.

“Our target is a fare of E100 [$150] per person between the main airport and the convention center, provided there are at least three passengers aboard,” Azur Hélicoptère chairman Michel de Rohozinski told AIN. He is considering using a Robinson R44, a Eurocopter EC 120 Colibri or an AS 350 Ecureuil. “Flying over highways, fields and rivers, we might avoid the need for a twin-engine helicopter, which would increase costs significantly,” he added. Whatever helicopter the company chooses, the flight will take about six minutes.

Azur Hélicoptère still has to get formal approval from Lyon’s mayor and other local authorities in civil aviation and river traffic. So far, none has objected.

He hopes to start building the helipad late this year and launch the service in March or April next year. A helipad could be built in front of the convention center for some E150,000 ($232,000). There is not enough space on the riverside so the helipad would be suspended over the Rhône. Obviously, this will cost more than simply adapting a few hundred square feet of dry land. Aéroports de Lyon, the company that operates Lyon’s airports, has expressed support, so Rohozinski hopes the association will help fund the helipad.

At Saint Exupéry airport, a sensible location for the helipad could be next to a parking lot because if it is situated beyond the airliners’ apron, passengers will not have to go through security checks again, Rohozinski explained.

A source familiar with helicopter operations in Lyon expressed doubts about the project. “Potential customers here either are not rich enough or the company they work for would not agree with their using such expensive transportation,” he said. Moreover, because of oil prices and environmental concerns, more and more people question the use of thirsty vehicles, he noted, hinting the timing is wrong.

Driving from the airport to the convention center (18 statute miles) can be smooth but can also become bogged down during rush hour. A new train between Lyon and the airport might also complicate a helicopter service’s chances for success.

Rohozinski has ambitious plans. He aims to transport 2,000 passengers in the first 12 months. “After two or three years, we should fly 4,500 passengers a year,” he estimated. He expects the service to pay for itself, but he does not see it as a significant source of revenue. Rather, he hopes it will introduce more people to using helicopters and show them they can use Azur for other transportation needs.

There are few airport-to-downtown links in Europe. London has some between its airports and London Heliport. Previous attempts in Paris have failed, but the UFH, the French helicopter association, is trying to float the idea again (see box). Azur Hélicoptère has experience on a comparable connection, between Nice Airport and Monaco.