Flying the Elite in NYC
New York-based HeliFlite runs a range of luxury helicopters on corporate and VIP missions. Although the company was initially established with an intended structure somewhat different from that existing today, it has successfully established itself at the extreme top end of helicopter VIP transport.
HeliFlite was founded in 1998, after the fractional ownership concept was proved in Dallas, Texas. Francesco (Frank) Lazzarini, HeliFlite’s Chief Operating Officer, outlined the initial vision and the company’s subsequent development. “The original idea was to establish a fleet of Bell 430s, spread around the country and bringing net-jet style fractional ownership to the helicopter world. After the first proof-of-concept, the original Bell 430 was transferred to the New York area, to access the largest market. Over the next few years the fleet grew to three 430s and then the first Sikorsky S76 was added to the fleet. By that time, however, the regulations changed and it was no longer compliant to establish further fractional ownership under Part 91, so the company elected to operate under Part 135, thereby becoming a commercial operator.”
The company’s product offering subsequently grew, firstly with the introduction of their ‘HeliCard’ in 2005. This facility allows clients to pre-purchase a set number of flight hours and gives them access to the fleet, but without their having to be a fractional owner. Then, in 2008 HeliFlite got its first managed Bell 430 so the company now offers four basic products; fractional, HeliCard, managed aircraft and spot charters. In 2011 General Electric upgraded its fleet to AW139s and HeliFlite purchased the two S76s previously operated by that company. “They were low-time, immaculately maintained machines,” said Lazzarini, “and we subsequently bought Prudential’s in 2015. That’s what we’ve done to grow our fleet and the substantially lower cost of buying these machines is why we are able to have a really healthy financial situation.” Lazzarini also discussed the choice of the S76 to expand the fleet. He explained that the local market had traditionally utilized the type, so there were none of the potential difficulties inherent in introducing a new and unfamiliar type to the existing and potential client base. “Almost everybody flying corporate or VIP in this area was using the type, so both the S76 and the Sikorsky name were fully established and held in high regard. This is a very sophisticated market compared to many other metropolitan areas. Clients here understand twin-engine operations, they understand two-pilots and IFR so it made sense for us to expand with the S76.” It is noteworthy that HeliFlite’s 24/7, 365 day operations are exclusively twin-engine, two-pilots in executive-class machines. Additionally, both pilots are fully qualified and checked out as captains on type.
Lazzarini did note that in recent times the AW139 has made inroads in the New York corporate scene, with several flight departments now operating the type, although there are no AW139s yet operated on the local charter market. This creates another opportunity for HeliFlite, which has now purchased an AW139 for charter. As Lazzarini observed, “There is sufficient demand for a charter machine now, simply providing coverage for those flight departments whose machine is out for service or maintenance. The 139 is a great machine, but it is quite maintenance intensive.” Of course, the higher weight limit of the 139 puts it in another category and has required additional organizational development, due to the requirement to meet the extra security requirements – such as running every single passenger through the ‘no-fly’ list before flight – of operating a machine over 12,500lb.
HeliFlite’s current fleet of ten fully-IFR aircraft is split between three operational areas. The main base in New York is at Signature Flight Support, on Newark Liberty Int’l Airport. Based there are three Bell 430s, three S76s and the new Bell 429, which is privately owned but available to HeliFlite for charter work when the owner does not require the machine. A managed, privately owned 430 is based at Palm Beach and one S76 is based at Chicago’s Vertiport. “Chicago has more Fortune 500 company headquarters than New York and that is the target market we are focused on there,” Lazzarini explained. “Also, there are no other operators in the Chicago area that match our credentials. The ARG/US Platinum and Wyvern Wingman approvals are industry-recognized safety audit programs and it’s not easy to meet their stringent standards. The fact we are the only operator in the Midwest to be able to offer those credentials is what gets us through the door at some of the largest companies that are based there.” Lazzarini points out that HeliFlite’s clientele typically operate their own corporate fixed-wing flight departments, flying high-end biz-jets. Those clients are not going to put their executives and staff in just anyone’s helicopter so HeliFlite’s positioning at the extreme top end of the market with regard to safety, equipment and service standards is exactly what those customers are looking for when seeking helicopter services. Operating within New York City isn’t cheap, with a single landing at one of the city heliports costing anywhere from $300 to $1,000. The heliports are owned by city entities but managed and operated by private FBO chains.
Although HeliFlite currently operates just the one managed 430 in Florida, Lazzarini noted that the state has a multitude of destinations that are ideally accessible by helicopter. He observed that Miami itself has historically been a problem, with minimal helicopter-friendly access. That is about to change, however, with a new heliport being established on Watson Island, on the causeway between downtown Miami and Miami Beach. “That is going to be a great location because you can get into either downtown Miami or the beach very quickly indeed,” he enthused. “We’re excited about that because we think that’s going to push our usage up in South Florida quite dramatically.”
Apart from the summer months, the majority of HeliFlite’s business is corporate transfer from airport or heliport to the city and return. He explains that the ability to minimize or eliminate traffic risk as well as reducing travel time is the key to the high demand for this service. Corporate executives are valuable assets to their companies and their time is also extremely valuable. During the summer months, though, flights to and from the Hamptons take over the number one spot in demand. To drive the hundred-odd miles to the Hamptons could typically take around four hours, whereas the trip is a mere forty-minute hop by helicopter. Huge numbers of successful and wealthy city residents own or rent properties in the Hamptons - which is essentially the playground for the wealthy, rich and famous of the New York region - and helicopter travel out there is the accepted norm for all those who can afford it. And affording it is seldom an issue for those who frequent the Hamptons with even bare building lots sometimes selling for many tens of millions of dollars. Illustrating the level of demand is the fact that all nine aircraft will fly around five trips each per day out to the Hamptons during the summer peak – and remember that they are catering to the top end of the market; competitors are also flying to meet similar demand. Many of those clients know each other and HeliFlite has introduced a ride-sharing program so that customers can share aircraft for their flights to and from the Hamptons. This popular initiative helps the company utilize the fleet more efficiently and not only does it make the cost-shared trip cheaper for the clients who choose to use the program; it also gives them extra time to socialize with friends and colleagues during the forty-minute flights.
The relatively short sectors of most HeliFlite operations means that the speed differential between types makes little difference to trip times, the 430 being just a couple of minutes slower on a typical trip to the Hamptons, as there are very strict limitations on routes into and out of the Hamptons for noise abatement purposes and aircraft tend to essentially ‘line up’ along the route. Each type does offer slight advantages, however. The 430 has better legroom, but the S76 offers greater width and each type has clients that prefer it to the other. The Bell is an older design and HeliFlite’s fleet replacement program currently aims to phase out the type at the rate of one per year, commencing in 2017, but the replacements will be selected opportunistically from the market at the time they are required. Brand new machines are unlikely, however, as Lazzarini has already explained. A brand new machine at four or five times the price of an immaculate, low-time used aircraft still can’t be charged out at five times the hourly rate, so the numbers just don’t stack up for buying new. According to Lazzarini, likely replacements will be the AW139 or S76. While he sees the AW169 or H160 as perfect machines for HeliFlite’s customers, their massively higher pricing makes them unfeasible at this stage.
The Bell 429 has turned out to be a little surprising in its appeal to the customer base. Lazzarini describes it as not quite up to the level of the 430
or S76 in the eyes of many of their clients. “For those regular customers who are used to our other machines, they find it is noticeably smaller and
the fact it has skids is a problem. The perception is that a ‘real’ luxury helicopter has wheels,” he explained. “Notwithstanding, many customers are
extremely happy with it and we have plenty of business for it, but predominantly with clients that are not regular users of the 430 or 76. We’ve priced
it as a competitor to the Twin-Star though, and it’s obviously much, much more helicopter than a Twin-Star. That’s worked very well for us and it means
we can keep the machine busy. Lately we’ve been doing around fifteen hours a month and it’s not even starting into the peak season yet.” The aircraft
that the company owns each fly around 500 hours annually, while the managed 430 flies about 300 hours.
Comparing the two main types in HeliFlite’s fleet, one of their most experienced pilots remarked, “The 430 is a very smooth aircraft but when you’re used to the power of the 76, it takes a lot more finesse to fly the 430. It’s a little more fragile.” Another pilot described the S76 as a ‘pilot’s aircraft’, saying, “I’ve flown a lot of helicopters and the 76 is just natural. It’s a great machine. We don’t pull all that we can but the thing cruises easily at 140-145kts. In fact, some of the C++s I’ve flown can do Vne of 155 in straight and level!” HeliFlite’s S76 fleet comprises three PT6-powered B-models and one C+ with the Ariel 2S1 engine. With one more C+ and an EC155B under management joining the fleet as we publish this article.
HeliFlite’s staff includes 23 pilots, ten mechanics and five dispatchers. The dispatchers also work 24 hours, manning the office from 7a.m. to 11p.m, with a dispatcher taking the phone home after that. The 24-hour service is a necessity as the customer base is global and a call might come in at any time from a client in Switzerland, Monaco or the Middle East, for example. When asked about his view on the future direction for HeliFlite, Lazzarini said he saw two main areas of growth. “One area is fleet growth,” he stated. “We’ve been adding one aircraft per year since 2012 and growth is steady in both flight hours and revenues so I see that continuing. The second area of growth is in terms of locations. I would like to see a second aircraft in Chicago soon. I’d also like to see LA and we’ve even considered London. You have to understand that all around the world, the customers we’re talking about are the same people, so it would be ideal to be able to offer a seamless service to them around the world, not just here in the USA.”