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How the Helicopter Industry is Coping with COVID-19

Posted 3 years 116 days ago ago by Admin

COVID-19 has proven to be tremendously challenging for the helicopter industry. The demands of social distancing, sourcing/wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), and working from home don’t exactly align with the lives of pilots, technicians, and air medical personnel. In fact, their jobs are all about being up-close-and-personal in small spaces!

To put COVID-19's impact on the helicopter industry in perspective, Rotorcraft Pro contacted people involved in various aspects of the industry to learn how COVID-19 affected them and how they are coping with it. Here’s what we found...

The Big Picture
Before delving into the individual impacts of COVID-19, it’s wise to put the pandemic into a macro context. How is the state of the world economy – both due to the pandemic and other forces – affecting the world helicopter industry?

It depends on which part of the economy you focus. “Indirectly, the biggest impact has been in the oil & gas segment due to the collapse in oil price per barrel from the $60s to the $20s,” says Brian Foley, founder of aerospace consultancy Brian Foley Associates. “This in turn has dried up offshore services and equipment demand, parking helicopters and further pressured operators and lessors.  It’s likely there could be a second round of restructurings later this year.”

“Utility usage is also down but to a lesser extent,” Foley continued. “Corporate is generally paused for the moment, but should gradually recover as lockdowns end and people begin to move about. Given their recession-proof missions, search & rescue, EMS, newsgathering, and law have been generally unaffected. Aside from offshore – which now may have entities entering bankruptcy a second time -- most other segments of the civil industry still have access to credit markets, assuming they are good credit risks.”

As for new helicopter orders? With the exception of the oil & gas segment and its demand for larger rotorcraft – which was depressed long before COVID-19 arrived – the rest of the helicopter sales market is holding up. “This market is driven by traditional business aircraft indicators such as corporate profits and the equities indices,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, a provider of aerospace and defense market intelligence. “And until those get hit, people have generally been saying,  ‘things are fine; no cancellations.’ So right now sales are not being significantly affected by COVID-19. The question is: what will things be like six months from now?”

Airbus NA 
About 75% of the service work performed by Airbus Helicopters North America (Airbus NA) is in support of critical helicopter missions. These missions span everything from EMS and law enforcement to infrastructure companies and government/military customers, such as the U.S. Army and National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard, and Customs & Border Protection, all of whom are flying helicopter missions that the country relies on.

Given this fact, Airbus NA is very much an ‘essential’ business that has to stay open despite the dangers of COVID-19.

To cope, “we have implemented stringent health and safety practices and measures based on guidance from the CDC and applicable local authorities in our sites across the U.S. and Canada,” says  Romain Trapp, president of Airbus Helicopters Inc. and head of the North America region. “Our facility and cleaning teams are working to rigorously disinfect workstations multiple times a day, hand sanitizer is provided on-site, and masks are available for all employees.”

“We have also implemented mandatory temperature checks at the entrance to our facilities and we are providing clear instructions to our workforce on enforcing the physical distancing requirements of six feet, as well as on how to stay safe,” he added. “We have restructured our team shifts in order to reduce the number of people in any given area at one time, and some of our employees have been working from home.”

With all these protective measures in place, Airbus NA has maintained full operations throughout the pandemic. “Our warehouses and hangars are receiving deliveries of parts as planned and at the current moment, all Airbus Helicopters logistical hubs are operating as normal,” says Trapp. “Our customer training courses continue at our Grand Prairie, Texas, facilities with reduced class sizes to ensure physical distancing and following the on-site health and safety guidelines.”

Mindful that Airbus Helicopter users are trying to keep their staff and passengers safe, the company has issued Information Notice 3476-I-12 on how to properly clean and disinfect helicopters, workspaces and tools, including the processes to be followed and disinfection material to be used. Airbus NA is also working on solutions to ensure additional protection against COVID-19 transmission in close quarters. They include a cabin cockpit isolation system, which provides a protective barrier between possibly infected patients and flight crews, thereby increasing the level of protection during flight.

Global Medical Response 
With a globe-spanning fleet of 306 rotor-wing aircraft and 106 fixed-wing aircraft – plus 111 fire vehicles and 7,000 ground vehicles, Global Medical Response (GMR) understandably describes itself as “the largest medical transport company in the world,” says Vicky Spediacci, COO of Reach Air Medical and Guardian Flight at GMR West. Like Airbus NA, the company has taken a full measure of precautions to deal with COVID-19. Spediacci continued, “This said, the newness of this situation has led us to partner with many other healthcare experts to learn about the unknowns associated with the coronavirus, and to use guidance from the CDC to manage our aircraft, personnel, and facilities safely.”

“We follow the CDC’s guidelines on PPE for our crews, and we put a surgical mask on every patient we fly,” says Seth Myers, GMR’s East Group president. “We refreshed our training on donning and doffing PPE since we know how effective it is to protect our teams. As for the aircraft decon process, that has not changed. Our standards are stringent, and are followed after every flight, COVID-related or not.”

Operating an air medical service is challenging enough under COVID-19 protocols. But GMR is facing an additional challenge that is dogging air- and ground-based ambulance services worldwide. Due to the public’s fear of being exposed to the coronavirus in hospitals, the number of EMS calls are down—seriously down.

“In March and early April 2020, GMR flight volumes (and ground ambulance) dropped by approximately 30 percent with an improvement in transports in late April and early May,” says Myers. As well, “we have seen a slight decrease in volume in our trauma-related scene flights. This goes back to people adhering to the stay-at-home orders and working to flatten the curve in the majority of the country. We also saw the majority of our flight volume drop from interfacility transfers.”

Although Myers applauds the civic-mindedness of people staying at home, he is concerned for those whose fear of contracting COVID-19 keeps them from calling 911 when they experience the life-threatening symptoms of stroke and heart attacks. “As many people know, air and ground ambulance is a highly fixed-cost business,” he says. “Nevertheless, we continue to stand behind our most valuable resource–our people–and maintain full-time hours for them, even with our reduced demand.”

Epic Helicopters 

At first glance, a pandemic wouldn’t appear to be a good time to pursue a pilot license or add a certificate or rating. But according to Epic Helicopters in Fort Worth, Texas, the timing couldn’t be better.

“If COVID-19 hasn’t negatively affected your pocket book, I do think that continuing your training right now is wise,” says Brian Dunaway, president and director of operations at Epic Helicopters. “The nature of flying is changing due to COVID-19 precautions, but there will be a recovery in the number of people flying nonetheless. Admittedly, this recovery will not occur overnight, but this is not the time to stop training.”

Dunaway believes that the current lull in the aviation industry offers an advantage to those aspiring pilots who keep going while others stay home in isolation. “This is the time to focus and invest in your personal brand—to build your resume up, expand your network, and gain a competitive edge in the hiring pool,” he says. “It will be a very competitive hiring market when COVID-19 is over. So it's important that pilots stay current and their resumes reflect that they've been flying recently or participating in computer-based training. After all, employers will be asking how much time you've flown in the last 60 or 90 days.”

In promoting flight school during COVID-19, Dunaway advocates taking precautions wherever possible, although “obviously you can't modify the cockpit,” he said. Still, Epic Helicopters hasn’t had any reported illnesses among staff or students; a fact Dunaway attributes to Fort Worth’s low population density and Epic’s sanitation protocols. As well, the school is restricting access to everyone but students and staff, so he believes that Epic’s students are not running any serious risks by staying in training. 

A note of particular interest: Epic is preparing a Zoom-based webinar series for career pilots “focussed on being at the top of the hiring pool for the recovery,” said Dunaway.

The helicopter industry is pushing through COVID-19, as it has weathered so many other storms in the past. Granted, the many conditions during this pandemic are unprecedented, but ‘dealing with the difficult’ is nothing new for the industry. 

As such, the helicopter industry is following the advice of Winston Churchill: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”