Air-tour operator Maverick focuses on high-end service

 - August 28, 2009, 7:25 AM

The greater Las Vegas area has the highest and most competitive concentration of helicopter tour operators in the U.S. They have traditionally survived with heavy discounting, under-the-table commissions paid to tour bookers and concierges, low pay, high employee turnover and aging aircraft.

Maverick Helicopters is bucking that trend. Its formula incorporates new helicopters, guaranteed pilot pay, a fleet of modern executive and tour vans that run passengers to and from their hotels, plush terminals, premium pricing, attentive customer service and a management team that constantly tracks and evaluates every metric of the business.

The 13-year-old company has grown from an initial investment of $50,000 and one AStar to a fleet of 26 late-model seven-passenger Eurocopter EC 130B4 EcoStars. Maverick’s Las Vegas helicopter operations are headquartered at McCarran International Airport, where it has an 18-year lease and 16 pads, a passenger terminal and a three-bay maintenance hangar on the southwest side of the airport abutting Las Vegas Boulevard and next to Signature Flight Support.

In addition to its per-seat tour business, Maverick charters whole helicopters for a flat hourly rate. Las Vegas’s congested freeway system, currently carrying 10 times the load it was designed to accommodate, means that helicopters are in demand. During rush hour, the drive to the nearby golf resorts at Lake Las Vegas can take more than an hour. Maverick can fly the trip in 12 minutes.

But the company’s two-and-a-half-hour Grand Canyon tour still accounts for the majority of its 35 to 60 daily flights and the bulk of its $4 million average monthly revenue at McCarran.

Explosive Growth

Company founder Greg Rochna is a veteran of the helicopter tour business who worked as a tour pilot, manager and partner in Hawaii and Las Vegas before starting Maverick. The experience taught him the value of building relationships with hotels and other institutional customers and frequent customer feedback. It also showed him what to avoid, such as beat-up equipment and green pilots.

Rochna’s philosophy, combined with a disciplined reinvestment of earnings back into the company, has fueled Maverick’s growth, according to company president John Buch.

Maverick requires new-pilot hires to have a minimum of 1,200 hours of helicopter time and 300 hours of turbine helicopter time. Most new hires come either from the offshore industry in the Gulf of Mexico or Alaskan air-tour operators.

New hires take one-on-one ground school from one of Maverick’s two in-house instructors and then train in a dedicated EC 130 that is fitted with dual controls. Pilots get six hours of initial in-helicopter training and three hours of recurrent annual instruction and an annual check ride. Overall, the company flies more than 250 instruction hours annually.

New hires then fly in empty passenger seats and observe tours firsthand. Finally, they fly with a training pilot and a line pilot for an average of three months before being turned loose on their own. The average Maverick pilot flies 700 to 850 hours per year, three flights per day and 4.5 hours per day. The typical schedule is five days on, two off.

Praise for the EcoStar

Pilot Gene Grell, who used to fly AStar tours in Alaska, had this to say about the differences between flying the EC 130B4 and the AS 350B2. “[The EcoStar] is much safer: the dual hydraulics, the fenestron enclosed tail rotor that also lowers the noise signature…the different skid and suspension system that makes it difficult to get into ground resonance compared to the 350. You can run out of pedal [on the EC 130.] There is so much more mass to support that fenestron than on the AStar. Sure the AStar has more tail rotor authority, but it doesn’t really break down on the EcoStar until the wind hits about 35 knots, and when the wind hits 40 knots you start canceling tours anyway. But it is not that windy here very often.”

Like Grell, Maverick pilot Paul Ciesielski joined Maverick after flying tourists in a Eurocopter AS 350B2 AStar in Alaska. “It takes a couple of weeks before you have it all dialed in,” he said. “You’re giving a tour, talking to the tower, watching for other traffic; it can be a heavy load on the pilot and it takes a new pilot a couple of weeks, typically, to get adjusted.” Ciesielski said the EC 130 lightens the load.

“This is really about as good as it gets,” he said of flying the EC 130.

Buch called the EcoStar “idiot proof,” adding, “The two issues we saw for years in this industry was the hydraulics going out and the fuel control failing. The 130 has back-up hydraulics and an HMU [hydromechanical metering unit] for fuel. It’s a push-button start. If something’s not right it won’t even let you get started.”

Interior Upgrades

Buch said that new EcoStars are down for three weeks after delivery for the installation of more than $200,000 worth of modifications and upgrades, including the DVD camera system, standardized leather interior and its own more powerful air-conditioning system. With modifications, Maverick has $2.3 million invested in each EC 130. That figure will rise to $2.7 million to $2.8 million on new deliveries, thanks to an 18-percent price hike, according to Buch. “[Eurocopter] is sold out so it can raise prices,” he said.

The EcoStar offers great passenger views but the quantity of window area can turn the interior into a summertime greenhouse. Maverick adds a slight tint to the side windows that helps somewhat, but with the air conditioning blowing full blast, interior cabin temperatures can sometimes creep into the low 90s during 115-degree Las Vegas summer days. Maverick’s air conditioning system provides each passenger with a vent.

Once the helicopters are placed in service, Maverick’s 20 mechanics work two shifts, seven days a week, to keep them flying. Typically, at least three helicopters are down at a time. Maintenance director Ernie Fagg has been working on Eurocopters since 1980 and understands the challenges of keeping heavily used EC 130s in the air. “We are not an air taxi. We are a limousine service. Our ships have good leather seating and nice carpet. We have our own paint booth. Every two years we buff off the clear coat and repaint the whole thing.”

Fagg says that each ship flies an average of 1,000 hours per year and the average maintenance hour to flight hour ratio varies from 1.8:1 to 1:4:1 depending on the age of the helicopter. Overall, he says the EcoStars hold up well under the strain, but certain Eurocopter components simply weren’t designed for a high-utilization environment and require frequent inspection, repair or replacement. Fagg said problem parts and components include plastic door bushings, door composite parts, nylon blade bushings, Fadec software and the hammers on the anti-vibration system. He says that some of these failures are just a result of high utilization rates. “For a corporate guy, plastic door bushings in the mechanism are great. But for us, opening and closing them all the time, they should be bronze or brass or something else.”

He said that the fenestron mechanism is robust and that the gearbox rarely makes metal or leaks, but that one tailboom did develop a crack and needed to be replaced. Securing that replacement took one month.

Maverick’s biggest maintenance problem to date has been cracking in the 748-shp (continuous) Turbomeca Arriel 2B1 engine swirl plates that has shown up on a few
of the newer helicopters. A swirl plate contains precisely cut holes used to create a more efficient fuel-air mixture in a turbine engine. It basically centers the fire mass in the combustion chamber. The cracks have shown up anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 hours on the 3,500-hour-TBO engine. Removing and replacing the plate is a major and expensive undertaking, requiring an estimated 40 man hours of labor. Fagg is philosophical about his ongoing durability problems with certain EC 130 components. “You have to understand their [Eurocopter’s] philosophy: Weight really matters. For that reason they can do really cool things like land on Mount Everest. On the other hand, there is the issue of how long stuff lasts. I try and impress on them that they have to make options available for high-use operators.”

Despite the EC 130’s maintenance needs, Buch still sees it as the best helicopter for the job and would like to have more of them. He points to the new City Center Project on the central Strip. When completed, it will house Las Vegas’s largest hotel. “There will be 20,000 to 25,000 rooms coming on line in the next two years. Most of those are suite properties. They are our clients.”