Though Airbus Helicopters (Booth 3432) has been known by that name for only a little more than five years, the company has been serving the North American market for half a century, which is why it held events throughout the latter half of 2019 in recognition of its golden anniversary.
The Airbus Helicopters story began in 1969 when France's Sud-Aviation joined forces with Texas-based Vought Helicopter to compete in the American civil and military helicopter business against industry heavyweights Bell and Sikorsky.
Those lofty aspirations weren't meant to be, at least not immediately. By 1976, the Vought name had all but disappeared in favor of Sud's own rebranding as the Aerospatiale Helicopter Corporation, and in 1979 the company marked its first year of 100 sales. Aerospatiale became American Eurocopter in 1992, and over the next 20 years it made serious inroads among commercial operators in North America. The company rebranded once again in January 2014, becoming Airbus Helicopters to better align with its parent company.
Today, Airbus Helicopters is a formidable presence in the commercial and defense markets. Its helicopters are in service across more than 150 countries, with a commercial line ranging from the single-engine H125 to the 11-tonne twin-turbine H225. Approximately 160 armed forces around the world operate military variants.
A Significant Presence in the U.S.
The company supports more than 275,000 jobs in 40 U.S. states, with primary manufacturing facilities in Columbus, Missouri, and Grand Prairie, Texas, and 17,000 jobs throughout Canada with a composites manufacturing plant in Fort Erie, Ontario, and a logistical-support and parts warehouse in Richmond, British Columbia.
The facility at Grand Prairie Municipal Airport (GPM) is home to the company's regional headquarters, as well as its primary support, services, and training center, with an 84,000-sq-ft parts warehouse nearby at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Opened in 2004, the Columbus facility at Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTR) produces the H125 (formerly AS350 B3) single-turbine light helicopter—a staple of air tour and emergency medical service (EMS) operations, as well as the owner-flown market—and the UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter derived from the twin-engine H145 and flown by the U.S. Army. Other Airbus helicopters, sourced from plants across Europe, arrive in Columbus for final completion work before delivery to North American customers.
Airbus Helicopters counts more than 440 UH-72As in service in North America, as well as more than 100 H125/H120 helicopters flying for U.S. Customs and Border Protection and 100 MH-65 Dolphins operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
As of early 2020, the company was also waiting on a determination in the U.S. Navy's Advanced Helicopter Training System (AHTS) competition, in which Airbus Helicopters fielded its H135 against the single-engine Leonardo TH-119 and Bell 407GXi. In addition to twin-engine redundancy, the company is highlighting the H135's long record of IFR operations (the other two competitors received IFR certification in 2019) and its four-axis autopilot, part of the H135's Helionix glass-panel avionics suite. If Airbus Helicopters wins this contract, H135 production would be moved to Columbus to support that work.
Focusing on a Complete Ownership Experience
While military applications remain a key market for Airbus Helicopters, company president Romain Trapp said the balance between commercial and military sales has actually hovered around 50/50 over the past several years. In 2018, Airbus Helicopters said it had secured 72 percent of the North American helicopter market across EMS, utility, private/business aviation, and airborne law enforcement segments.
The company has recently zeroed in on the personal-use market, which demands a superior experience across all facets of ownership. "In the past, we were selling a product—a great product, but [just] a product," he told AIN. "At the end of the day, this market demands a complete customer experience. When you buy a luxurious car, you buy the service that comes with it. And when you go to the dealership, there's something special around it.
"I believe we have been rather successful, [although] we have still got lots of improvements to make," he continued. "It's about having people taking care of our customers and feeling that [the customers] are part of the Airbus family."
Developing a loyal customer base is a key hedge against the ongoing downturn in the helicopter marketplace, which Trapp said may actually represent "the new normal" for rotorcraft manufacturers. He pointed to Airbus Helicopters' own numbers, which show 40 percent of its sales over the last few years have been to customers who are new to the brand.
"Our industry has faced quite a significant downturn on the commercial side," he continued. "It's a fight, but changing the way we address the market has helped expand our customer base and brought us customers from our competition, which has really helped us mitigate the downturn."
Trapp hopes to continue that growth with his company's latest offering, the H160 medium twin. "We've never had a product that was competitive on the medium side of the market, so the H160 is a game changer," he said. "It's a brand-new aircraft, with leading-edge technology, and there's a huge replacement need in the medium segment of the market. Many of the aircraft are aging, and operators have been waiting for the H160 to replace these aircraft."
In May 2019, Airbus Helicopters also secured a letter of intent from the French government to be the launch customer for a militarized version of the H160 under its still-to-be formalized Hélicoptère Interarmées Léger (HIL, joint light helicopter) program, for entry into service by 2026.