Airbus Helicopters Deliveries Down; Rethinking X6

 - January 22, 2018, 12:03 PM

Airbus Helicopters delivered 409 helicopters last year, a slight decrease from 418 in 2016, the company announced today. Gross orders for the year were 350, also down from 388 in 2016, while net orders stood at 335 last year, 18 fewer than in 2016 but up slightly from 333 in 2015. Worldwide, the company maintained its 50 percent market share.

Outgoing company CEO Guillaume Faury, who was recently tapped to lead Airbus’s commercial aircraft division, said the numbers “reached our target” in a “challenging market.” Faury also revealed that, despite receiving no new orders from the oil-and-gas segment for its heavy helicopters for three straight years, the company received orders for 54 Super Puma family (H225/215) helicopters from military and parapublic customers last year; and that it is rethinking its future X6 large-helicopter project.

He said the unspecified technologies Airbus was considering for the X6 are “not ready” from suppliers and “the market is not sustainable” for a new heavy twin in the depressed oil-and gas-space, which is increasingly turning to smaller super-medium twins such as the H175. Airbus booked orders for 19 more H175s last year, and the in-service fleet has amassed 20,000 flight hours, Faury said.

He called the H175 the “joker” in the oil-and-gas space, alluding to its ability to perform missions of several different classes of helicopters efficiently. However, he cautioned, “I don't anticipate a structural recovery in oil-and-gas. There's still a very large overcapacity of heavy helicopters in this segment. We don't anticipate that the rise of oil prices in the short-term or even the midterm will absorb this overcapacity.” He said the overcapacity problem could linger for “the next couple of years.”

Faury hinted that the X6 might ultimately emerge as a significantly different, perhaps military-driven, product. For now, he said, Airbus Helicopters “will not launch a full-fledged program,” but will rather continue research, and that the $429 million in European Union-approved subsidies for the program from France and Germany remain “in place.”

“A successor [to the H225] has to be able to answer to the expectations of the military market,” Faury said. “We believe this military market may be more active [in the future] than it is today.” However, right now, he said, “Airbus could not make a robust business case” for the X6.

The future of the in-development H160 medium twin is bright, Faury said, given the French military's selection of the type for its HIL (hélicoptère interarmées léger) replacement program, with the promise of orders for up to 190 H160s.

Faury said the continued depressed civil helicopter market was a “crisis” that enabled the company to accelerate its companywide lean transformation and digitization initiatives. Part of the transformation involved “rationalization” of the product line by discontinuing production of the H120 and AS350B2 singles and the AS365 twin; yet-to-be-announced specifics involving “digitization” of the H125/H130 singles; and continued work on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft and electric propulsion.

According to Faury, the City Airbus eVTOL will make its first flight by the end of this year, and the compound Racer prototype will fly in 2020. Further, he said the company is continuing its digital initiatives that involved providing customers with a seamless “end to end” solution to capture, analyze, and store data and assist in operations. “First we had to learn to crawl, then to walk. Now is the time to run,” Faury said.

The new initiatives have allowed Airbus Helicopters to cut costs, grow market share, and increase customer satisfaction, he noted. While his successor has not been named, Faury said that he hopes whoever replaces him will continue the company's transformation program, explore new markets and opportunities, and continue to embrace new technologies such as electric propulsion and autonomous flight.

He predicted the unmanned market would grow to a “one billion dollar business in the next 10 years.” More immediately, he said the company's VS700, its unmanned/autonomous version of the Helicopteres Guimbal Cabri G2 two-place training helicopter, would gain military certification in 2019.

“We think VTOLs will grow,” he said, adding that “over time, the number of missions and the nature of missions they will perform will grow,” but that he didn't see any short-term cannibalization of the traditional light-single helicopter market by VTOLs. However, “Long-term, there will be a sort of fusion between what the drones and helicopters are. Helicopters will become more and more automated.”

Faury said he did not have any regrets with regard to his five-year tenure as Airbus Helicopters CEO, a period marked by a pronounced improvement in the company's product support. “I'm sure there were many things we could have done differently or better, but it is not up to me to judge that. I did my best.”