Is it worth it to invest in “super-medium” helicopters? Waypoint Leasing set out to answer this question for itself and completed a study it has decided to share with the industry. Though the 28-page report is due out in the coming weeks, R&WI got a sneak peak of what Waypoint’s study discloses about the 7- to 10-ton maximum takeoff weight class.
The main players in this class of aircraft are the Leonardo AW189 and the Airbus Helicopters H175 as they are currently in production and being delivered to customers — they were the focus of this study. When the Bell Helicopter 525 enters the market (supposedly in 2019), Waypoint projects it to be a serious competitor. According to the lessor, there is life in the oil and gas market as it has stabilized and is showing signs of upward trending growth. The emerging super-medium class could be a good fit for some mission profiles.
This super-medium trend is exemplified by an initiative CHC Helicopter launched in July. It announced it was introducing the AW189 and H175 to its global fleet in what the company called its “super medium aircraft program” for operations in the North Sea and Australia. The operator worked with lessor Milestone Aviation to deliver aircraft for “energy transport missions.” The program is also a result of the company’s large restructuring effort after it emerged from bankruptcy.
In October, Safran Helicopter Engines unveiled a new, 2,500 to 3,000-plus shp engine family for super-medium and heavy helicopters. Its first application would be on the AW189. The Aneto high-power turboshaft family, presented at Helitech International in London, fulfills the strategy of Safran (then Turbomeca) in buying out Rolls-Royce’s 50% stake in the RTM322 engine program in 2013 and positions the French original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to compete for contracts to power new generations of super-medium and heavy helicopters.
According to Waypoint’s study, a super-medium efficiently closes the “gap in the payload range offering,” as well as the acquisition price gap, between mediums and heavies. Waypoint said all of its technical data came directly from the OEMs. The lessor asked for payload/range charts based on a specific set of parameters. Cost data was also provided by OEMs, and Waypoint used its own fleet acquisition and operating cost data. The rest of the data came from Conklin & de Decker.
In Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway and the U.K., the vast majority of offshore beds — a proxy for number of passengers — are located between 125 and 150 nm from the nearest helicopter base, according to Waypoint. This means that most can be serviced by a super medium carrying a full, 16-passenger load and no need to drop weight to go further. This is especially true if the aircraft has an underbelly fuel tank, like the AW189 has, depending on payload. With only 14 passengers, the helicopters can go close to 200 nm.
Though the 525 has never performed an actual mission, Bell has given numbers that Waypoint said the manufacturer believes are conservative in light of data collected during recent test flights. The firm also mentioned that maximum takeoff weight increases as the platform matures. As of the time of the study, the 525 could bring 16 passengers to the 150-nm mark and 10 passengers almost 250 nm. With auxiliary tanks, the 525 could bring about seven passengers nearly 300 nm. These numbers would be marginally better than the current capabilities of both AW189 and H175, depending on range.
Waypoint also concluded that the super mediums available are less expensive to operate than new-build heavies, largely due to lower capital cost and lower maintenance costs, as well as some improved efficiencies. To demonstrate this last point, Waypoint drew comparisons to Sikorsky’s S-92. (Comparisons also could have been made with the Airbus H225. But since it has not been flying as much due to its accident and subsequent grounding, much H225 work has been taken over by S-92s, and debate around capital cost would skew the cost analysis.)
Waypoint showed in its study that total cost per passenger seat mile is about $0.50 to $1 more in a new-build S-92 with a 140-nm rig range, compared with an H175 and an AW189 with extended range. This, the firm said, is driven in large part by the higher capital cost of the new-build heavy. However, used S-92s presented a different dynamic in Waypoint’s study. Using a capital cost range of $16 million to $20 million (whether they are purchased or leased) for the used S-92s with all other data constant, they performed about equal to or better than the super mediums on a cost-per-passenger seat mile basis.
“The cost comparisons in this study are on a one-to-one basis. They do not include induction costs, training, tooling and spares, and do not look at the efficiencies gained by operating a multi-aircraft fleet and the associated economies of scale,” Waypoint told R&WI. “An operator today would need to consider all of these elements when assessing new super mediums to their fleet relative to the capabilities of their current heavy fleet.”
Basically, it all depends on various aspects of an operation. Different missions require different types of aircraft. Super mediums are used for more than just offshore transport. In fact, Leonardo has done a good job selling its AW189 into the search and rescue field. Waypoint’s study showed that there are eight of them carrying out search and rescue duties around the world. According to Waypoint, Airbus has yet to do that with H175s, as there are none operating in search and rescue.
As for oil and gas, 27 AW189s are deployed while 15 H175s are working. However, Waypoint expects that over the next five years, both aircraft programs will have a smiliar fleet in service, both in terms of number delivered and diversity of end user.
Only time will tell what the global 525 fleet will look like in the future. But Waypoint’s study shows that the popularity of super-mediums should increase along with the rebounding oil and gas market.
The lessor told R&WI that although it has not seen any outright requests for super mediums from oil and gas firms, some are interested to see what the class of helicopters can do. For now, the emphasis within the market has been put on diversifying the fleet and unlocking new efficiencies — and safety, of course.
“Despite a significant downturn in [oil and gas] activity since 2014, the industry is beginning to rebound,” Waypoint said. “And the increase in rig activity, oil company earnings and tender activity means that the requirement for safe and efficient helicopter transportation will expand anew in which super-medium helicopters will play a more prevalent role.”