After a slight slow-down in the helicopter market in Greater China during the first three quarters of 2015, business has returned to the strong levels of growth experienced over most the past six years, according to Chris Jaran, vice president, China, for Bell Helicopter.
Providing an overview of the market during a session yesterday at ABACE 2016, Jaran noted a number of factors in China, including economic challenges and a stock market crash, that slowed the market for new helicopters earlier last year. But the market began to rebound in the last four months of 2015 and this has continued into 2016. “[This year] looks more like 2014 than 2015,” he said.
Jaran noted that the fleet in China, with just 764 helicopters, is still relatively small compared with other markets such as the U.S. Growth has averaged 20 percent per annum since 2009, with the slight dip in 2015 being down to 18 percent. That growth rate is “wildly different from the 1990s,” when the average was in the low single-digits, Jaran added.
As the Chinese helicopter fleet has grown, its composition has changed from predominately pistons to mainly turbines. In fact the turbine helicopter fleet now comprises 61 percent of this market.
Single-engine helicopters are the largest segment of the fleet and are used for multiple purposes. The largest concentration is in the eastern half of the country, where most of the population resides, but Jaran said that helicopters are now flying in every province.
The growth in the fleet, however, is creating some issues as the number of certified helicopter pilots and mechanics has not kept up, he said. He admitted that this has created safety challenges, and added that safety issues have become more pressing in China.
Jaran, who also spoke on behalf of the Helicopter Association International, said the helicopter community is developing an initiative in China to target safety improvements. HAI, which has 91 affiliate members in 73 countries, also is hoping to start an affiliate in China.
New Bells Show Promise
While sales of current-production Bell helicopters slowed down last year, one area where the company saw great progress was orders for the new Bell 525 and 505 Jet Ranger X. “We’ve sold more 505s in China that anywhere else in the world,” Jaran said. Oil prices remain too low for much sales activity in that market segment, but other segments are doing much better.
Last year, Bell sold 10 helicopters for corporate travel and tourism in China, and at this year’s Heli-Expo show the company brought 100 Chinese customers and made four sales at the event.
Jaran sees one of the greatest helicopter opportunities in China as the emergency medical services market. “Today there are maybe a dozen EMS helicopters in China,” he said. “In the U.S. there are thousands. It’s a nascent market. It will come–it’s just a matter of time.”
One way that this is happening is that operators buying a helicopter for corporate transport are outfitting them with medical equipment so they have dual-use capability. Helicopters in China typically find multiple uses, he said, noting, “There’s not a lot of aircraft sitting idle.”
Tourism is another strong area for Bell Helicopter in China. “Now it’s a growth industry for helicopters.” But EMS is still facing hindrances to expansion, including the availability of financing and airspace access, and government intervention may be needed, Jaran said.
Recent developments for Bell in China include strengthening service and support, doubling the number of flight training pilots and training more Bell mechanics. “Step by step we’re going through expansion of Bell’s business,” Jaran said. “We do a lot with a lean operation, and we find good partners and train and support them.”