The civil market may be expanding at a reduced rate, but there are still opportunities for helicopter manufacturers to grow their businesses in the Asia-Pacific region.
That, it seems, is the message many in the industry are taking from what might otherwise appear to be some gloomy headline trends. According to the 2019 year-end edition of business-aviation consultancy Asian Sky Group’s annual Asia-Pacific civil helicopter fleet report, the number of civil rotorcraft in the region grew modestly over the previous year’s figure. At the end of last year there were 4,373 helicopters in the region, up 2% from the figure at the end of 2018. ASG’s forecast for 2020 puts growth at only 1.5%.
“2019 marked another challenging year for the rotary industry in the Asia-Pacific region,” ASG’s managing director, Jeffrey Lowe, wrote in the report. This “seems to be a recurring theme, with operators, lessors and service providers being asked annually how they are ‘dealing’ with the current market conditions. While the fleet witnessed growth, the rate was much less than in recent years as this year saw more deductions than before.”
The fleet growth – 84 net additions – was made up of 121 new aircraft and 115 pre-owned additions, offset by 152 deductions. Both the new and secondhand numbers were down on 2018, while the number of deductions was up.
Many of these ostensibly worrying trends are consequences of a maturing market. And manufacturers with large numbers of aircraft in the region – many in military and parapublic roles not captured in the ASG report – have reasons to see some significant upsides, even if sales of new airplanes are flattening.
“We’ve actually doubled our maintenance, repair and overhaul revenues from 2018 to 2019,” says David Sale, Bell Helicopter’s managing director for the region. “That was just at the Singapore facility alone. We’ve made a change with our sales team where we’re focused not just on the aircraft sales, but we’re really focused on the entire customer solution set. By being able to offer not just selling you a new aircraft, but how to help you maintain your platform and get higher readiness rates, we’ve seen more aircraft come in through our own facility, and then [are able to] teach people what it really requires for maintenance.”
Additionally, the company is winning new business by offering extensive upgrades and refits of older aircraft. This will also distort the kind of figures collated by ASG, as the process will bring in income to the OEM while providing the customer with a nearly new airplane.
“We’re taking even older 212s and 412s that need to be refurbished, and we have the ability to go through them, completely rewire the aircraft, put in a new cockpit, and then give it back to the customer almost zero-timed on all the dynamic components, if that’s what they want,” Sale says. “So you essentially have almost a new aircraft. This is a market that’s always been out there – it’s just a new market for Bell to pursue.”
Another area of potential expansion Bell are looking at is around pilot training. Even though the rate of expansion of the civil market is slowing, the number of aircraft in service is still increasing, so the already limited supply of pilots is only going to become ever more stretched.
The company already offers training to maintainers and ground crew at its Singapore facility, but presently only trains pilots at the firm’s training academy in Fort Worth, Texas. Bringing some pilot-training capability to the Asia-Pacific region is an idea that’s under active consideration.
“We’d love to do that,” Sale says. “We’re working very hard with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore to open up the airspace. That’s our biggest challenge. If we could get the airspace open for training, that would allow us to do more in the area. We’ve been successful in 2019 in opening up some airspace for our maintenance flying, which has been great, and we’re really happy about that.”