Helijet proves value of wings and rotors in diverse ops
Pair of Learjet 31As and 2 Sikorsky S76s fly EMS while 5 S76s and 4 Bell 206Ls provide wide range of services from Vancouver base. Remote site support and dedicated EMS are all a part of the mix.
By Grant McLaren
(L–R) VP Ops and Comm Programs Rick Hill, Chief Engineer Mark Oloresisimo, Aircraft Mx Engineer Ryan Edmondson, Mgr Facilities & Charter Services Bob Claridge, Dir Mx Morris Forchuck, Pres & CEO Danny Sitnam, Dir Safety Kim Carswell, Chief Pilot Rotary-Wing Chris Todd and Chief Pilot Fixed-Wing Ted Houston with S76A and Learjet 31A at YVR.
Helijet operates North America's largest scheduled helicopter service and is one of the few successful helicopter airline services worldwide. Over the past 24 years Helijet has carried over 1.9 million passengers and flown more than 150,000 flight hours on scheduled rotary-wing service with a fleet of 12-seat Sikorsky S76As—primarily between downtown heliports in Vancouver and Victoria BC.
It's not easy making money with scheduled helicopter services—which explains the almost complete lack of successful examples of this business model over the years—but this YVR (Vancouver BC, Canada)-based operator has come up with a winning formula in marketing, management and cost control.
For its first year of operation—1986—Helijet deployed a 13-seat Bell 412 on scheduled service but has operated Sikorsky S76As ever since. At one point Helijet had 5 S76As on the schedule moving up to 500 passengers a day between Vancouver and Victoria. Key to existence and success of this unique service is availability of downtown public heliports in each city—rare commodities in this world.
A manageable 55-nm distance between the 2 heliports suits S76As well and the fact that British Columbia's capital and center of commerce are separated by water helps support high yields and consistent travel demand.
IFR helicopter services compete effectively against lower-cost scheduled de Havilland DHC6 Twin Otter floatplane alternatives between the 2 cities—particularly during winter months—and offer the benefits of all-weather operation and longer operating hours—from predawn to well after sunset.
"It's a challenge to make the economics of a scheduled helicopter service work," says Helijet Pres & CEO Danny Sitnam, "but we have a body of water in just the right place—between our 2 markets—and the 12-seat S76A is a reliable and cost-effective option that helps make the numbers work."
He continues, "It takes about 60 people to support year-round scheduled service with 3 S76As. This level of staffing would be unheard of in a charter operation. The key is very tight cost and inventory control, high utilization and an airframe with 99.5% dispatch reliability.
Vancouver's floating downtown heliport features 4 landing pads and a passenger terminal. This unique facility is used year-round.
Cost per seat mile of smaller 6 to 7-seat helicopters would be just too high and it's hard to make an economic case for larger, newer equipment like the S92. While a seating capacity of 14–17 might be ideal for our market, the 12-seat S76A has worked well for us in terms of dispatch reliability, product support and operating costs."
Over the years, Helijet has parlayed its expertise in running scheduled services into other profitable rotary and fixed-wing endeavors—including EMS and helicopter support for resorts in remote regions of British Columbia.
Today, Helijet operates 7 S76As (1 of which is an S76A+), 4 Bell 206L LongRangers and 2 Bombardier Learjet 31As piloted by 39 rotary-wing and 11 fixed-wing pilots. Typically, 3 or 4 S76s support scheduled services while the balance of the twin-engine rotary fleet provides EMS support for the BC Ambulance Service.
Meanwhile, the Learjet 31s, both in EMS configuration, provide provincewide EMS support under contract to BC Ambulance Service, as well as lift for insurance company medical repatriations with pickups as far afield as Mexico and Guatemala.
Utilization rates are high—up to 1200 hrs annually on S76s and over 800 hours on Learjet 31As. Fleets are under the command of Chief Pilot Fixed-Wing Ted Houston and Chief Pilot Rotary-Wing Chris Todd. Dir of Maintenance Morris Forchuck is in charge of line support and inspections on all aircraft out of Helijet's spacious hangar complex at YVR.
Helijet manages both the Victoria Harbour and Vancouver Harbour public heliports under its Pacific Heliport Services division. The floating downtown Vancouver heliport, inaugurated in 1986, is a spacious facility with 4 pads, a landing zone and a passenger terminal just steps from the downtown business core.
Sitnam sees potential in cloning the Helijet concept in other markets around the world but it's not easy making the model work. "The helicopter is a great product for our particular circumstances but, in reality, there are just so many dots to connect in establishing a viable scheduled rotary-wing service that this model is often not workable."
He explains, "There are just a lot of moving parts—like in a helicopter—to make the business model work. If you can't get heliports in the right place, with long-term community buy in, and establish a nav/routing system to make the operation productive, it may fail.
The key is preplanning and understanding the market. You really have to drill deep to understand what the consumer wants and will be willing to pay for. A scheduled rotary-wing service may seem like a good idea but, at the end of the day, may not work out from a pricing, market and regulatory perspective."
Building a business
Victoria's 4-pad heliport is within walking distance of downtown and provincial capital buildings.
Downtown-to-downtown service between Vancouver and Victoria was launched with a single Bell 412 operating 6 round-trip flights daily in competition with existing scheduled seaplane services.
"The market was initially cautious in entertaining our product but we built up service slowly and became a credible business," recalls Sitnam, who founded Helijet with partner and Helijet Chairman Alistair MacLennan.