International charter alliance kicks off

 - June 3, 2009, 7:07 AM

The new Global Executive Helicopter Network (GEHN) began operations on May 1 as a transatlantic alliance of helicopter charter providers. The program has been launched by Sikorsky’s  Associated Aircraft Group (AAG) subsidiary, which operates 10 S-76s in the northeastern U.S.

The network now also includes London-area operator PremiAir, which has 15 helicopters, including six S-76s. The most recent addition to its fleet was an S-76C++ that arrived in April.

AAG Global expects to add other international operators to the network. It has been evaluating markets such as Florida, Germany, Belgium and the Middle East.

All GEHN partners have to be audited to safety and service standards by Aviation Research Group/US (ARG/US). The operators must fly twin-engine, IFR- equipped, executive-configured helicopters with an approved minimum equipment list and an approved maintenance program. They also have to be flown by a two-person crew with minimum experience requirements for the captain and first officer, with specific training requirements (including annual simulator recurrent training) for the captain.

Another requirement, dictated by AAG owner Sikorsky, is that GEHN operators have at least one Sikorsky helicopter in their fleet. PremiAir also operates various Eurocopters and Bells.

Flight requests can be made through the network’s Web site at www.aagglobal.com. GEHN provides a 24/7 telephone support line and flight following services, and it has emergency response procedures.

The terms and conditions for flights are standard for all GEHN operators, but each sets its own charter rates according to local market conditions. The partners are considering the case for offering discounted block charter rates for customers willing to buy multiple hours upfront.

AAG is based at Dutchess County Airport, 78 miles north of New York City. It has been in business for almost 20 years and offers fractional ownership in Sikorsky S-76s.

PremiAir is marking its 30th anniversary this year and is active in charter as well as helicopter management and maintenance from its base at Blackbushe Airport, 35 miles southwest of London. The company also operates the London Heliport at Battersea and provides shuttle services to and from this facility from London-area airports and other locations. It is an authorized service center for the S-76.

Safety Audits
According to PremiAir managing director David McRobert, GEHN will give customers peace of mind when they book a charter flight because they will know that both the operator and the aircraft have been professionally and independently audited. “Uninitiated buyers find it difficult to differentiate between helicopters in terms of how many engines they have, whether they are certified for IFR flights, what regulatory environment they operate in, what their capabilities may be and how well maintained they are,” he said.

“AAG has often been asked but never felt comfortable brokering a flight,” explained AAG executive vice president Tom McQuade. “As a result we missed opportunities for customers who wanted to charter in other global business centers. Some of our customers wanted to do their own safety audit but they can’t justify the expense for a one-off flight.” He told AIN that AAG views GEHN as added value that it can provide to its existing charter and fractional ownership clients.

The company launched its fractional ownership program in 1999, the same year that Sikor-sky acquired it. “We launched fractional ownership in bad economic times,” said McQuade. “We made just about every [commercial] mistake you could make in fractional ownership and still made it work.”

Through the ARG/US Cheq (charter evaluation and qualification) process, clients receive something that looks like a boarding pass just before their trip. This includes precise information and a photo of the exact helicopter they are going to fly as well as information about the pilots who will fly them.

The ARG/US audit is an ongoing process. It starts with an initial check of the operator, its aircraft and crew, but is then followed up with periodic reviews and continuous monitoring of the hours flown and input through customer feedback on service standards.

Both AAG and PremiAir acknowledge that the helicopter charter sector has seen reduced demand in the current economic crisis. McRobert said that the UK operator has seen a 20-percent reduction in bookings and McQuade said the U.S. sector is down by even more.

“We have seen some people cutting back on executive travel, but others are not adding staff or have smaller management teams and so need to be even more productive with their time,” commented McRobert. His U.S. counterpart predicted that charter will likely recover as companies and individuals come to see it as a more discreet way to have the convenience of helicopters without the unpopular profile that can come with private aircraft ownership these days.