VIP and corporate helicopters: Elite fleets
Article retrieved from Vertical Magazine and written by Jen Boyer
The helicopter industry’s more exclusive market sector, VIP and corporate operations, is evolving. The convergence of a new breed of customer, Covid-related behavior changes, social media, and heightened global geo-political tensions have both boosted and evolved the market segment beyond traditional VIP and company business helicopters.
“There’s been this really increased resurgence of the personal business and pleasure market — what we used to call VIP or corporate — where a lot of people are buying helicopters that have never owned one before, or owned any aircraft for that matter, which is really kind of interesting to me,” said Scott Urschel, president of Pylon Aviation Services of Chandler, Arizona. “Traditionally, I would see private individuals with corporate jets who had friends start flying helicopters, so they thought they’d get one too. Or they have a property that they can’t fly their jet very close to, so are looking to add a helicopter. That’s changing.”
Covid was a part of the increased demand. The pandemic drove people to explore more personal modes of transportation, where they could limit their exposure to large crowds.
“It started pre-Covid, but definitely Covid exacerbated the want and desire to travel privately,” said Matt Jayne, product marketing manager at Bell. “When you think about private travel, and especially in the age of Covid where being amongst other people may not be as desirable right now, there truly is no limited way to travel in a helicopter. We’ve seen an uptick in interest for that purpose where people can now skip the airport entirely.”
In the U.S., Covid also drove sales of properties in more rural areas such as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. With increased distance between properties, and properties further from airports, came a demand for faster, direct transportation. This Covid purchasing behavior alone brought a number of new owners to the helicopter industry.
“I had a customer who lived a couple of hours’ drive from his ranch up north, four or five hours by car if there was an accident,” Pylon’s Urschel said. “He got tired of the drive, so he chartered a helicopter to take him and his family up to the ranch, then he’d commute that way when he needed to come to town for business. One day the charter helicopter wasn’t available, forcing him to drive. He got stuck behind an accident on the road and he missed the flight to meet with a big customer. That’s the moment when he decided he’d get his own helicopter, even though he had no pilot experience or any former aviation asset ownership experience.”
Lending to this trend is an increase is a new breed of high-net-worth individuals who are younger, more adventurous, and are embracing the helicopter as a personal offroad vehicle. They are learning to fly themselves, taking friends and family on adventures. As a result, there are a growing number of helicopter adventure influencers on social media, sharing their experiences in their helicopters and driving desire within this new marketing segment.
“Owners are publicizing what they own and taking videos and posting them on social media and kind of showing off the stuff they do with the aircraft, which is really cool,” Bell’s Jayne said. “I think it’s bringing a whole new element to the industry that’s pretty prolific. It’s not new. You see it in powersports all the time. Polaris, Arctic Cat, and BRP, they’ve got all these masters and influencers out there doing cool stuff. But now you’re seeing it in helicopters. That’s a whole different dimension that I don’t think anyone would have predicted.”
OEMs and completion centers alike are seeing a shift in trends with this new generation of helicopter owners. Traditionally, people purchasing helicopters for their personal use were in their 50s and 60s, requesting plush interiors and other conveniences. Today, there is a younger wealthy customer segment in their 30s and 40s with a different philosophy, said Bell’s Jayne.
“They’re not as focused on acquiring assets,” he explained. “They want to spend money on experiences. For them, the helicopter is a way to go out and have these amazing adventurous experiences, which you see reflected in their social media.”
The requests for plush interiors, fine leather finishes, and other cabin bells and whistles are not as common in the U.S. and Europe today, Jayne said. They’ve been put aside for more utilitarian finishes to meet the adventure lifestyle.
“These customers like simple, utilitarian, and minimalistic,” Pylon’s Urschel said. “They want coin mat flooring and easy to clean interiors because people are getting in dirty with muddy boots after playing outdoors. They go mountain biking, hunting, fishing, camping, you name it — sometimes in places you can’t reach with other vehicles. They use the aircraft more like a UTV or Jeep.”
Typical equipment requests for these new, younger adventure-
focused customers include plastic flooring, bear paws, bike racks, cargo pods, cup holders, phone and tablet chargers, Wi-Fi, and even interior and exterior cameras. However, when it comes to the front of the aircraft, another positive trend is taking place. The demand for additional safety features is on the rise.
Bentley Thistlethwaite, director of maintenance at Heli-Lynx Helicopters in Simcoe, Ontario, has experienced a significant jump in corporate/private aircraft completions in just the first half of 2023 alone. One thing they’ve all had in common is a focus on safety features.
“Customers seem to be more conscious of some safety options, like autopilot,” Thistlethwaite said. “In the past, some corporate guys or private individuals had more of a romantic attitude of the aviation industry. They wanted to fly themselves and didn’t want autopilots. Now they recognize the safety aspect of an autopilot and they’re requesting it in upgrades along with radar altimeters, satellite radio, satellite weather, traffic awareness, crash resistant fuel systems, and crashworthy seats. They still like the bells and whistles, but we’re getting more requests for the safety upgrades as well.”
The same demand for safety equipment extends to larger aircraft. Manuela Barbarossa, head of VIP/corporate segment marketing at Leonardo, echoed Thistlethwaite and emphasized key features for their aircraft were also increasing in demand, including synthetic vision and all-digital glass cockpits.
She also said demand is increasing for Leonardo’s “full ice and limited ice protection systems on AW139, AW189 and AW609, an APU mode on the AW169 and a full APU on the AW189, vibration mitigation systems to increase the quality of comfort and noise reduction, [and] an exclusive and optional obstacle proximity lidar system with a 360-degree aircraft protection.”
In response to changing demand in the sector, many OEMs created company divisions and brands marketed directly toward this segment while still serving the needs and tastes of traditional VIP and corporate customers. Airbus Helicopters started its Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH) division aimed at meeting the specific needs of private and corporate buyers. Bell did the same with its corporate helicopter focus, as did Leonardo with its Agusta brand. Many come with signature interior designs using high-end materials, such as Airbus’s Aston Martin and Mercedes Benz editions, and include VIP/corporate customer-focused support, such as integrated maintenance service plans.
The OEMs have also started marketing outside the box. Bell, for example, has put efforts on attending events that are not traditionally aviation focused but attract adventure-seeking high-net-worth individuals, such as car shows, sporting events, and even the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
“We’re getting outside the traditional aviation industry and finding a lot of new-to-aviation individuals that may not have considered a helicopter before,” said Bell’s Jayne. “We’re definitely seeing more consideration from these people outside the industry who are new to aircraft ownership.”
The growing number of high-net-worth individuals capable of paying cash for a helicopter continues to rise, making the aircraft cost no longer the true barrier to entry. That title now goes to insurance, which itself is playing a big part in private individual helicopter ownership.
“There used to be 15 insurance underwriters in the market,” Pylon’s Urschel said. “Now there are nine, and only six of those will write personal and pleasure insurance. Of those six, a lot of them have limits, and the limits become not only the type of helicopter that they will insure, but also pilot experience. We are seeing a lot of people buying the Bell 505 that don’t know how to fly at all. They want to learn and solo in it. The underwriters are not really excited about that type of risk. For that level of risk, you end up with really only two underwriters that will take that on.”
Urschel explained that those two underwriters take on the risk by providing low seat limits instead of a smooth limit for the aircraft, meaning instead of a $100-million policy across all seats, the owners can have a $100-million policy, but each seat is limited to $100,000.
“That, honestly, is kind of like not having insurance,” he said.
In these cases, underwriters will also put experience limitations on owner/operators, from requiring several hundred hours of turbine helicopter experience and annual factory recurrent training to flying a set number of mentor hours — flying with a flight instructor with an underwriter-approved level of experience in the aircraft, Urschel said.
Some owner/operators get around these limitations by self-insuring, but that in itself can be a limitation depending on how the aircraft will be used.
“Manufacturer and insurance approved recurrent training companies such as Pylon will not fly with you in your aircraft if you do not have insurance,” Urschel explained. “We just can’t indemnify ourselves enough if anything were to happen. For transportation, most private and public heliports also want to be named as additionally insured. If you don’t have insurance, you can’t land there.”
Traditional Corporate/VIP Travel
As sales and completions grow for this new customer set, traditional corporate and VIP helicopter sales remain steady. Nitin Sareen, head of marketing for Airbus Helicopters, sees very buoyant sales in the personal business and pleasure market. Traditionally, this sector has represented 25 percent of Airbus Helicopters’ sales. However, bookings are up across the board, especially in this sector, he said.
Sareen credits the company’s ACH division for strengthening traditional corporate sales. Taking a page out of the Airbus corporate jet business, ACH leverages Airbus’s resources and experience in developing luxury interiors and providing a seamless experience, including maintenance packages.
VIP sales also remain strong. Sikorsky is selling the S-92 to heads of state and royal families, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to these customers upgrading to the larger S-92, Leon Silva, vice president of global, commercial and military systems at Sikorsky, is also noticing a change in what customers are choosing to include in the aircraft.
“We’re seeing customers who have used certain interior design pallets in luxury cars who want those reflected in the helicopter from materials and colors, to look and feel,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for customers to want their helicopter to match their business jet look and feel, too. We have also added defensive systems, mainly for heads of state, from armor plating to systems that detect missiles and launch flares to detract them.”
These same aircraft often include interior completions that allow eight to 12 people with large comfortable captain’s chairs, large-screen entertainment systems, and a full aircraft lavatory including a shower, all with elaborate finishes, Silva said.
David Brigham, president of AeroBrigham in Decatur, Texas, recently supported a high-net-worth customer in India with a Bell 429 completion. The aircraft will serve two key purposes.
“This customer wanted to be able to transport himself and his family members in really congested areas of the world where they go, but also to ensure they do not get kidnapped, which is a real threat in the parts of the world where he operates,” Brigham said.
The Bell 429 is just one of many in an increased demand for corporate aircraft completions at AeroBrigham. Most customers are seeking luxury upgrades, such as leather interiors, soundproofing, and connectivity that allows individuals to make private calls through their headsets. Brigham also sees increased requests for navigational and safety technology, including weather radar, satellite phone and satellite tracking, and night vision compatible lighting.
Regardless of whether it’s a luxury transportation vehicle for those riding in the back, or an access to adventure for the owner pilot, the demand for connectivity for calls, video streaming, and the like is the same. Whether customers are attending conference calls in flight or uploading video of that sick new spot they mountain biked where no one has ridden before, they demand 24/7 connection.
“One of the things we’ve started working on due to customer requests is inflight Wi-Fi,” Brigham said. “We’re working with a couple of different companies to give them that capability; enough bandwidth over a bonded cellular network for 16 people onboard, say, an S-92 to all be watching movies, be on video conference calls, and things like that — all in flight.”
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