French authorities plan for increased helicopter traffic

 - August 28, 2009, 7:02 AM

The French Ministry of Transport has launched a study to establish several helipads or heliports in the Paris area within two years. Operators, who have been anticipating such a move, remain concerned, however, that the addition of more heliports might also entail the imposition of a strict limit on passenger traffic at the current Paris heliport. At the same time, local authorities on the French Riviera have issued new rules for the use of so-called helisurfaces (usually authorized but unprepared landing spots for helicopters) around the resort of Saint-Tropez, where residents have been vocal in their intolerance for the noise of unregulated helicopter traffic.

For the Paris area, the process of defining where to add helipads will begin with meetings starting this month. The civil aviation authorities and the UFH (French Union of Helicopter) lobby will be among the participants. In June, the secretary of state in charge of transport, Dominique Bussereau, announced that economic criteria will drive the choice of additional public sites for helicopter landings and takeoffs. He mentioned Paris La Défense, a business district located northwest of Paris, as a possible site. There is already a proper helipad there but it is inactive, UFH chief representative Thierry Couderc told AIN. Three more helipads are likely: one around high-tech hub Saclay in the southwest, at Le Bourget Airport in the northeast, and one on the eastern outskirts of Paris. The new facilities are slated to open “before the summer of 2011.”

Creating new heliports is part of a plan to reduce noise around the current Paris heliport. As part of that effort, officials have recently increased the overflight altitude from 1,500 to 2,000 feet near the heliport and implemented new approach procedures. Bussereau said he wants access to the heliport to be progressively restricted to the quietest types. Finally, future landing fees will be based on a helicopter’s acoustic footprint.

The Paris heliport still concentrates too high a proportion of helicopter flights into one facility, according to Bussereau. There were 10,744 helicopter movements at the Paris heliport last year. The annual limit is 12,000. These flights include passenger as well as medical and rescue flights. Bussereau wants the new helipads to support most of the commercial flights.

Frédéric Aguettant, CEO of Paris heliport-based operator Aviaxess, expressed concern about Bussereau’s plan. He insisted the Paris heliport should be the cornerstone of the future network. “Some 300 directs jobs are at stake,” he said.

UFH’s Couderc shares that opinion. “Some local residents and politicians are angry at those helicopters carrying business passengers, while praising those being chartered for firefighting. Yet, these are often flown by the same pilots. They cannot fight fires in summer if they do not log enough hours during the rest of the year,” he pointed out. Couderc added the Ministry has reassured the UFH that the agency does not
wish to expel all business traffic from the Paris heliport.

French Riviera Noise

Around Saint-Tropez, the prefect and subprefect have published new limits on the use of helisurfaces. In addition to Saint-Tropez, the affected cities are Gassin, Ramatuelle and Grimaud. The authorities apparently want to tackle a longstanding dispute about noise. A proper helipad in Saint-Tropez shut down in 1998 and operators replaced it with a number of helisurfaces, some of them improvised.

Helisurfaces now authorized for public transport can be found in Ramatuelle (four), Gassin (three) and Saint-Tropez (three). Hours of operation are limited at each helisurface.

Authorities have capped the number of aircraft movements at the helisurfaces in each of the cities. Each of Ramatuelle’s four is limited to 10 movements per day. At Gassin’s and Saint-Tropez’s helisurfaces, the limit for each facility is 20 per day.

“Authorized helisurfaces were chosen after operators documented their previous use of unprepared [and often unauthorized] spots,” Couderc explained. This year, the economic crisis has somewhat slowed demand for helicopter flights to the resort area, which is easing the situation. However, operators are concerned about the lack of any plan or study for the long-promised proper helipads.

Jean-Claude Molho, president of local resident association Halte Hélico, which has as its goal the elimination of all public land-based helisurfaces, said the situation has improved and the noise has decreased accordingly. “There are 10 helisurfaces in use, whereas there were about 100 last year,” he told AIN.

According to Molho, the new sub-prefect is determined to solve the issue. She instated weekly meetings that encourage the feuding parties to talk to each other, Molho said. These meetings have already resulted in an agreement to replace one helisurface with another. Molho even sees improvement with Monaco-based Héli Air Monaco, the operator the residents’ association has long singled out for breaking all rules.

Jacques Crovetto, CEO of Héli Air Monaco, told AIN that, “except for a few circumstances,” his company does comply with current rules. The Héli Air Monaco CEO also praised the subprefect for crafting new rules that, unlike previous ones, are workable. Flying to the Saint-Tropez peninsula is of great economic importance, he asserts: “This is a market of 2,000 to 3,000 landings in three months.”

The prefect and subprefect were unavailable to comment on whether rule violations are declining this year.