Emergency-services helicopters encounter days of high utilization and days when they are barely flown, and certain peak seasons require the availability of more aircraft. Though asset management involves many unpredictable factors, it is important for operators to understand how to optimally manage their expensive helicopter assets. AIN reached out to experts to examine the best asset-management strategies.
Because emergency-service helicopters and crews need to be available 24/7 in a certain area, there is often not much room for improved utilization. In the Netherlands, coast guard search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopter services are executed by NHV from its bases in Den Helder and Rotterdam. “We use the Airbus AS365 ‘Dauphin’ helicopters for the SAR duties—an aircraft type with a proven track record in safety and operational availability," said Thomas Hütsch, NHV’s COO. "Spare capacity is foreseen at both bases to guarantee the required around-the-clock availability even in the event of unforeseen technical matters. We continuously seek to improve technical availability and reduce maintenance time to reduce the requirement for spare helicopters.”
Depending on the billing model agreed upon with the charter customer, the operator will normally ask for a high standing fee for the availability of its fleet to counteract low utilization, according to Martin Siegrist, chief technical officer at helicopter lessor LCI. “Furthermore, if the pattern is seasonal, heavy maintenance can be planned into the low-utilization period,” he observed.
In the UK, Bristow Helicopters operates the UK Coastguard SAR helicopter service. It has 11 Leonardo AW189 and 10 Sikorsky S92A fully SAR-equipped aircraft at 10 bases across the UK, from the Shetland Islands in northern Scotland to Cornwall in the south of England. “To meet HM Coastguard’s UKSAR contractual requirements, we maintain two fully equipped SAR aircraft onsite at each UKSAR base,” explained Russell Torbet, director UK SAR for Bristow. “This ensures at least 98 percent availability overall and provides coverage for scheduled maintenance, as well as providing additional resilience, should an aircraft be unavailable due to technical issues. This enables Bristow to meet HM Coastguard’s demanding key performance indicators requirements for quality and service delivery. Longer-term scheduled maintenance is planned to avoid coinciding with peak seasons of high utilization.”
It is important to ensure the highest possible aircraft utilization, provided that safety is not compromised. “The more flying hours that can be charged to the charterers, the more effectively the operator’s overhead cost can be spread, thus driving down hourly costs and increasing competitiveness,” said Siegrist.
“Within UKSAR, Bristow Helicopters focuses efforts on providing 100 percent aircraft availability for HM Coastguard, while use tends to be driven by operational demands or training requirements,” noted Torbet. “The crews operate within the approved safe flight/working limitations and approved maintenance schedules, which means that at no point is safety compromised. Practices and procedures are in place to ensure the safety of the crew, working to a target zero policy with regards to safety.”
Providers with larger fleets tend to have improved aircraft utilization. “This is because they have a greater ability to vary their planning of maintenance, for example, and thus optimize fleet utilization,” said Siegrist.
According to Torbet, in general, a larger fleet, particularly if of a similar model, offer advantages in economy of scale. “These advantages afford the operations a larger pool of flight crew available to man the larger fleet, engineering support, and resources that are more cost-effective when shared over a larger fleet, and a supply chain that can run a more economical, better-stocked, centralized hub model, supporting the larger fleet over a large geographical area," he said. "All of these lead to improved operational availability and utilization."
Safety best practices should be at the forefront of helicopter asset-management activities. Indeed, safety should be seen as a strategic business pillar. According to Hütsch, safety best practices include well-established processes, just culture, and open communication and adequate budget for maintenance and training. “All of our activities, including helicopter maintenance, undergo accountability risk assessments," he said. "Well-structured and carefully documented data form the basis for comprehensive and results-oriented safety performance measurements, from which we actively implement lessons learned. But one thing lays at the foundation upon which everything else is built—and that is a safe attitude. It is a core competence that is shared by all of our staff, from flying crew to technicians to admin personnel. As a company, we are committed to zero accidents and zero injuries, especially in our SAR missions that often take us to high-risk environments where safety awareness is critical to the success of the mission.”
“The core to safety within UKSAR is a combination of creating and maintaining a deep-rooted safety culture, employing a highly-skilled, well-trained workforce who support, understand, and work to deliver core safety values, no matter what pressures they may find themselves under,” said Torbet. “This includes both engineers and aircrews following the rules and procedures provided and championing a target zero philosophy. We actively monitor safety through a robust safety management system, with constant feedback ensuring safety is not compromised.”
“The best practices to avoid jeopardizing safety include good maintenance, good infrastructure, adequate engineering organization, and extensive crew training," concluded Siegrist. "The latter is particularly true of SAR operations, where up to 75 percent of all flying hours are spent in crew training."