Heli-Expo 2011: Better Times Ahead For Helo Builders, Says Forecast

 - March 5, 2011, 6:00 AM

It’s Heli-Expo, and that means it’s also Honeywell forecast time. The 13th edition of the diversified aerospace manufacturer’s best estimate on what the rotorcraft industry can expect in the next five years predicts that global deliveries of new civilian-use turbine-powered helicopters will lie somewhere between 4,200 and 4,400 through 2015, and that represents a 5-percent gain over the delivery tally from 2006 to 2010.

“Improved economic growth prospects in key markets, combined with new models offering increased customer value, are key variables driving purchase expectations,” say the report’s authors. “In the short term, lingering tight credit conditions combined with high inventories of used current production models for sale continue to dampen order intake.”

In another echo of the outlook for turbine-powered airplanes, Honeywell says, “the China market could be a strong contributor to broader demand for rotorcraft as the country opens its airspace to civil helicopter operation and begins production of indigenously designed civil turbine helicopters.” Helicopters are already playing a prominent role in the first signs of the country loosening its airspace access restrictions below 3,000 feet.

The formal name of the Honeywell crystal-ball session is the “Turbine-powered Civilian Helicopter Purchase Outlook Report,” and in that specific vein the company notes that global five-year replacement and expansion plans climbed to 25.4 percent this year, up from 24.9 percent last year. “Although modest, the increase concludes a two-year period of declining demand, indicating the beginnings of a market recovery. Substantially higher purchase mentions in Europe drove the increase in total survey expectations. Purchase plans in major U.S. and Asian centers of demand remained steady during the same period.” Other regions declined modestly compared with 2010, though their purchase plans remain above the world average rate.

“Although specific purchase plans for 2011 remain subdued, expectations for new aircraft ordering in 2012 and 2013 increased 40 percent over 2011 levels, suggesting the recovery will gain momentum starting next year.” Global five-year demand for new turbine-powered helicopters is split almost 50-50 between the Americas and Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. “Latin America has the highest fleet replacement and expansion expectations of all world regions. In terms of demand for new helicopters, this region is the world’s third largest, following North America and Europe.”

Reasons for Replacement

As in past surveys, the key motivators for replacing a currently owned helicopter are its age or “normal planned replacement cycle,” followed by a desire for higher speed, newer technology and bigger cabins. Greater useful load, lower maintenance costs and improved reliability/durability also warranted frequent mention.

Light singles continue to be numerically the most popular class, accounting for 45 percent of helicopters in this year’s survey versus 49 percent last year. Singles mentioned most frequently in purchase plans this year are the Eurocopter AS350B, Bell 407 and the Robinson R66 (the attractively priced newcomer to the segment). Buyers in the Americas are fonder of light singles than those in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and India, where in some cases the regulatory environment or intended mission favors multiple engines.

Light twins are the second most popular category mentioned, accounting for 23 percent of purchase expectations. Models mentioned most frequently were the Bell 429, EC135 and AW109, and the highest concentrations of demand were in Europe and Asia.

Medium twins such as the AW139, Bell 412 and S-76 are most popular in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and India, where between 50 and 60 percent of all make/model mentions were for this category–twice the less than 30-percent tally in North America, Europe and Latin America.

Tell a Friend

For the first time this year, Honeywell’s researchers quizzed the survey’s targets (“more than 1,000 chief pilots and flight-department managers of companies operating some 2,150 helicopters worldwide”) to indicate their “current” satisfaction over the last year with each model of helicopter they operate by asking them, “How likely is it that you would recommend this model to a friend or colleague?” In alphabetical order, the top picks were the AW109 Grand, AS350B series, AW139, Bell 407 and EC145. These five models account for almost 50 percent of all survey make/model mentions and Honeywell suggests that “they can be considered the benchmarks of current production helicopters in terms of customer satisfaction and likelihood to promote.”

Utilization on the Up

Operators in all but one region plan to use their helicopters more this year. In order of increased utilization are Africa and the Middle East (up 23 percent to 560 hours per helicopter), North America (up 18 percent), Latin America (up 10 percent), Europe (up 7 percent) and Asia (down 6 percent). Oil and gas exploration and support operators work their rotorcraft the hardest, averaging 822 hours per year per helicopter, followed by law enforcement at 598 hours and EMS at 577 hours. Corporate operations log the fewest hours per year, at 350 hours per helicopter.

Honeywell assembles its outlook report from “the recently conducted customer expectations survey, an assessment of consensus forecasts, a review of factory delivery rates and analysis of future new helicopter introductions. The 2011 outlook excludes uniformed military demand for civil helicopters, but resulting civil estimates do include government and security force demand.” The report notes that the recent sudden outbreak of political instability in the Middle East and its effects on oil prices and supply uncertainties were not factored into the current survey and forecast results. “Demand for civil rotorcraft is potentially sensitive to fuel price volatility and possible supply disruptions.”