Derek Sharples, CEO of Airbus Helicopters Southeast, anticipates signing up the first Asian customer for the EC175 this year. He says customers from Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia have shown strong interest in the aircraft. And some Asian customers were on the advisory panel when the aircraft was in development, he adds. At the Singapore Airshow, Airbus Helicopters will have a mock-up of its new EC175.

Some may assume that Airbus Helicopters Southeast Asia is only a sales and customer support organization, but this is not so: its hangar at Seletar Aerospace Park is used for helicopter maintenance, final assembly of aircraft and customization of aircraft. Sharples says it aims to assemble 18 helicopters this year.

Airbus Helicopters Southeast Asia is also a certified helicopter design organization capable of designing minor modifications, mostly those needed for customization. It is the only Airbus Helicopters facility outside of Europe and the U.S. to have this capability.

It also designs some tooling. “Low-cost tooling design is done here, and [we] can do rapid prototyping. Simple engineering design work that results in rapid design and rapid manufacturing are done here in Singapore,” says Sharples, who cites as an example the fact that the facility has designed and produced some tooling used for manufacture of helicopter blades.

Airbus Helicopters Southeast Asia is hoping to assemble the seven EC725 helicopters that the Royal Thai Air Force has ordered, he says.

In terms of flight training, it has a full-flight simulator for the AS365 Dauphin and an EC120 flight training device dedicated to the Republic of Singapore Air Force. The EC120 is a single-engine helicopter that air force pilots learn to fly first before they move onto bigger helicopters.

As for customer support, Sharples says, “Singapore is designated as a technical hub. That means there are engineers here that can be made available to customers in other countries.” He says, “Not all customers are obliged to bring their helicopters here. We also have capability in Jakarta, Manila and Taiwan, but for complex, deep maintenance, customers may require the depth of capability that Airbus Helicopters has here in Singapore.”

One reason Airbus Helicopters has such a strong presence in Singapore is because the Singapore air force is a large customer.

“We have a strategic relationship with the Singapore air force, which operates the Super Puma helicopters,” says Sharples, referring to the fact that the air force in Singapore is one of the world’s biggest operators of the Super Puma. The air force operates about 30 of them and has flown the aircraft for nearly 30 years. Sharples declines to be drawn on when the air force may be looking to replace these.

In terms of commercial helicopters, Sharples says the big markets in the region are Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. He also says there are some good emerging markets, namely Cambodia. Laos, Timor Leste and Myanmar.

One challenge that Airbus Helicopters faces when selling into markets such as Laos and Cambodia is strong competition from Russian and Chinese helicopter makers, which have close political ties to those countries. The Russian Mil Mi-17 is quite popular in emerging markets because of its low acquisition cost. The Chinese too have been very active in marketing helicopters. For example, Cambodia’s air force last year took delivery of 12 Harbin Z-9 helicopters. China’s state-owned media said that Cambodia bought the helicopters thanks to soft loans from China.

When asked about the competitive challenge from China and Russia, Sharples is dismissive. “Even if those manufacturers can provide helicopters at a much lower purchase price, operators are looking for highly reliable robust machines,” he says. “I think operators value our machines and are looking at the through-life cost. That relies on highly reliable engines and long operating cycle. Customers expect high availability, a strong level of customer support and strong support in terms of spare parts,” he adds.

Sharples says Airbus Helicopters’ main spare parts pool for Asia-Pacific is in Hong Kong; and it also has sizable spare parts pools in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.

He says the growth in helicopter sales is coming not just from the region’s oil and gas sector, but also from the government sector, namely police, emergency services and VIP transport. There are also several tourism operators that now use helicopters, he adds.