AAM Spotlight: Helijet CEO Danny Sitnam

Helijet CEO Danny Sitnam
Credit: Helijet

With the largest scheduled helicopter operation in North America, Vancouver-based Helijet is planning a leap into the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector, having recently placed an order for up to eight electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles (eVTOL) from Beta Technologies. Danny Sitnam, the company’s CEO, recently sat down with the AAM Report to discuss his vision as a future operator of electric air taxis. A partial transcript follows: 

AAM Report: How do you envision eVTOLs fitting into Helijet’s existing helicopter operations?

Sitnam: We’re trying to think about how our company will look 10, 20 or 30 years, and what we see is the need to become more sustainable as an aviation group and an industry. So when eVTOLs and AAM technologies started coming out, we felt we needed to participate, get involved and see where it leads us. Will it take over the helicopters that we currently operate? I don’t believe so. I believe it will complement some of the route network that we have within the urban operations for our helicopters today.

I also see the vehicles and the technology adding a lot of value to rural and remote communities in an effort to get the operating costs down for some of these people that live in the outskirts of those communities and cannot afford aviation or air services. So I see opportunities for both urban and rural communities, and I see it complementing our existing fleet, rather than replacing it.

Helijet recently became the first Canadian operator to place a firm order for an eVTOL through a purchase agreement with Beta Technologies. What did you like about Beta’s aircraft?

There were a number of things that we liked. They’re a young, aggressive company with a talented team that we’ve gotten to know. And very importantly, they’re focused on certifying an aircraft for IFR operations, which is very key because we operate in an IFR environment for 60-70% of our flights. We’re always in a two-pilot-crew operation with hard IMC weather conditions, so we need to know we can transition any new technology to that arena fairly quickly, otherwise we don’t have the ability to operate it.

Another key influencer that Beta brought to the table is their charging station network, which is fairly advanced compared to other technologies that we’ve seen. They seem to be building that in parallel with their vehicle, so they recognize the importance of having the infrastructure in place before the technology arrives. They’re designing these chargers to be portable, and they want them to become universal, meaning they’re willing to share and not make it proprietary to their own vehicle. We think that’s very important; you have to share that technology to allow it to become multimodal.

And lastly, they have an interest in Canada. They have an engineering center in Montreal. And we love to see an OEM drawing on Canadian expertise and content into developing their product. That’s important to us.

Helijet has shortlisted a couple of other eVTOL OEMs for potential purchases. What does that process look like?

The whole aim is evolving, so we need to stay open-minded. I’m a big believer that not one shoe fits all.

I think Beta definitely has a place for us in our communities here. But there’s two or three other OEMs we have our eyes on and we like what they’re doing, too. We’re still monitoring and watching them and going through the review process with them. Their vehicles may be a little different, and they may be more tied to utility-type work that we do. Some of them may be hybrids. Some may even be hydrogen-powered as opposed to electric. So, we’re very interested in those short-listed OEMs, and we hope to have more to announce at a later time.

Helijet is leading the development of Canada’s first vertiport, located at the downtown Vancouver heliport. What is your vision for developing vertiports?

The vision is to develop existing heliports that will accommodate vertiport technology, protocols and criteria, which still remain to be set by the regulator. So it’s unclear whether conventional heliports and future vertiports will allow all vehicles to operate in that space.

Personally, I don’t believe we should be developing vertiports exclusively for air taxis and eVTOLs. That would be a shame and a very unproductive exercise from an infrastructure point of view. Imagine having a heliport on one side of a building and then having a vertiport on the other side. The vehicles are similar in nature, they both takeoff and land in a vertical mode. So why can’t we develop heliports to become vertiports and change the regulations to accommodate that?

Again, we see this as an integration of complementary conventional and future vertical-lift technologies working together. It makes sense to have the infrastructure accommodate both those technologies before we start segregating the vehicles out, especially in an urban environment. Because it seems totally wasteful to imagine a situation where there are eVTOLs landing a quarter-mile away from the helicopters rather than just sharing the space. 

What most excites you when you think about the future of AAM?

One area I’m particularly passionate about is looking at helping connect and expand access for rural and remote communities. My son and I have started a non-profit group called Helicopters Without Borders. We raise private funding for it to afford using helicopters to make deliveries to rural and remote indigenous communities that don’t have access to air services or wellness or health.

I think eVTOLs are going to allow that work to go one step further because if this new technology does truly come in at a lower cost, and it’s environmentally friendly. Those vehicles can probably bring a lot of opportunities to rural and remote communities at a cost that’s much more affordable than helicopters. So, that’s a business opportunity that we’re paying a lot of attention to. We can use these vehicles to help people and assist people who are less fortunate, and with hope provide them with a better quality of life.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Boston, Ben covers advanced air mobility and is managing editor of Aviation Week Network’s AAM Report.