Operators plan to wait and see on Santulli’s Milestone venture

 - September 21, 2010, 10:09 AM

Richard Santulli’s re-entry into the helicopter game drew mixed reaction from a variety of operators who spoke to AIN. Santulli is the CEO of the newly formed Milestone Aviation Group, a company that will devote most of its resources to helicopter leasing and sale leasebacks. (See article on page 6.) Santulli formed the company to serve an “underserved market niche,” saying, “many good helicopter operators worldwide cannot get access to capital despite a demand for their services. At Milestone, we believe the quality of an operator should be defined by more than just its balance sheet.”

Santulli is not new to the helicopter market. His first foray into it was the formation of RTS Helicopter Leasing, which focused on serving the Gulf of Mexico market and later grew into the world’s largest helicopter lessor.   

It appears that Milestone–like RTS–will concentrate its efforts on the offshore oil and gas market, only this time, initially, with operators looking to capitalize on Brazil and West Africa, rapidly growing markets where operators are being forced to add medium and heavy twins to their fleets quickly. (See AIN, August, page 37.)

Dan Rosenthal, Milestone president, said that he expects “the majority of the helicopters that we do will be in the oil and gas space, both personnel transportation and search-and-rescue.” He said he expects most of these helicopters to be medium and heavy twins. Rosenthal also expects most of the OGP financing Milestone will do to be in support of foreign-based work. “It is fair to say that the majority of deals that we do will be outside North America in high-priority markets such as Brazil, Australia and Nigeria. We’re a global company that focuses on doing deals globally,” he said.

Rosenthal anticipates Milestone’s financing of EMS helicopters “would be more of a split” between the U.S. and foreign markets “but with a significant market in the United States.” He said Milestone’s transactions in the helicopter EMS market would not be exclusively in the twin-engine segment. He said, “We are open to some of the single-engine models. We want to be the dominant lessor in the helicopter marketplace.” He declined to offer specifics about the make and model.

At press time the company did not have any deals to announce, but Rosenthal added that Milestone is “delighted since our launch announcement by the response from the helicopter marketplace” and looks forward to announcing deals in the near future.

During his August 5 conference call with analysts, Bristow Group CEO William Chiles acknowledged that the company is looking at “a small amount of leasing to reduce the cost of capital.” Bristow already has a lease-buyback arrangement with GE Capital on nine helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a company spokeswoman, who said that senior company executives are “talking to” Milestone.

A spokesman for CHC Helicopter said the company “is aware” of Milestone “but not currently doing business” with the new venture. “It is always challenging to find competitive lease financing terms and we are interested in lease financing arrangements with any credible group,” the spokesman said. “We don’t know a lot about Milestone right now, but we will be looking into its services to see if there is a fit with CHC Helicopter.”

However, not all helicopter operators are as receptive. “That’s not something we would look at,” said PHI CFO Michael McCann.

McCann’s sentiments were echoed by helicopter EMS provider Air Methods CEO Aaron Todd. “Our ability to finance aircraft is a non-issue. We have more than adequate funding sources. That form of financing would likely not be competitive with commercial banking rates,” Todd told AIN.