Helicopter Industry Adjusting on Fly to COVID-19

By Stephen Hunt | DFW Newsflash | June 2020

Helicopters are big business in the Lone Star State. At least 100 helicopter manufacturer and supplier companies in Texas are members of Helicopter Association International (HAI), the Alexandria, Virginia-based governing body of the international helicopter community.

Two such companies, Airbus Helicopters, Inc. in Grand Prairie and Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth, are among the 10 HAI manufacturers or suppliers based in Dallas-Fort Worth.

HAI members operate 5,000 helicopters for 2.3 million hours per year. HAI President and CEO James A. Viola recently hosted an online webinar for association members and media members.

One of the more oft-discussed topics was the COVID-19 pandemic, how it has impacted the helicopter business and how it will affect the industry in the future.

“COVID-19 is going to be around for a while, and what we’re trying to get to what does [the new normal] look like,” Viola said.

HAI has shown great initiative by developing its own coronavirus protocols, the COVID Clean Program, designed to help members adjust to the new normal. Information on the plan, including cleaning guidelines, a pledge for members to sign, and the latest pandemic-related news impacting the industry is available on the HAI website.

“We want to have a pledge from the members of HAI that they’re following the procedures we’ve gathered for them. Then we’ll help promote it both internally inside their companies as well as externally to people that will be using their services so they can feel that they’re not at risk when they’re trying to get back to their normal business with COVID-19 still in the shadows,” Viola said.

Since the pandemic remains a fluid situation, the degree of permanent changes to the helicopter industry due to COVID-19 has yet to be determined.

However, Viola said he would like to see any technological advancements come in the areas of monitoring for the coronavirus and screening passengers for it.

One area which has not been adversely impacted by the pandemic is the recent development of eVTOL (electric and hybrid-electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, a wide-ranging category which includes helicopters.

“I don’t think it will be a hindrance,” Viola said. “I think the more players we can bring in and the more work we have to do [the better]. Again, it’s all about getting together.”

Like most industries, the helicopter business has been adversely impacted economically by COVID-19, and HAI has been there to assist its members and the industry.

HAI has been active is in helping members secure loans for their businesses during the pandemic as well as other forms of government assistance.

“I think we have [taken advantage of those resources],” Viola said. “I know we have been active with the CARES Act. There was also an exemption for medical, I believe for fuel taxes. So far to date, over $27 million was provided to HAI members, and many members have access to the Paycheck Protection Program, which goes up to $10 million per borrower. I think we’re helping.”

Helicopters are of course used by civilians, military and law enforcement and HAI members come from each of these categories.

Mark Ogden, editor of HeliOps Magazine in Australia, answered a question about how police departments can allay any fears citizens might have that police helicopters are being used to spy on them instead of enforcing laws.

“The military [in Australia] made helicopters very visible to the community during open days, different carnivals and things like that,” Ogden said. “I think if you present yourself as being elitist or separatist from the general community, there’s a natural inclination of suspicion.

“I find the concept of defunding police a bit strange, but I think that for the police helicopters to be more acceptable by the community, they just need to engage more with the community, so the community doesn’t develop suspicions about what they actually do.”