With a large fleet of more than thirty aircraft and a history spanning more than thirty years, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters is not only a benchmark tourism operator in Hawaii; the company is also heavily involved in industry and aircraft development. HeliOps visited Blue Hawaiian to discuss the company and their newest machines, eleven Airbus H130-T2s.
David and Patricia Chevalier founded Blue Hawaiian Helicopters in 1985 and operated the company until Air Methods acquired it in 2013. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters’
management and operations continued unchanged until the Chevaliers moved into advisory positions in 2015, and Gregg Lundberg was then appointed as
president and still occupies that position. The Massachusetts-born Lundberg remains a die-hard fan of the New England Patriots and his background includes
thirty years in the hotel industry; predominantly in Hawaii but with six years in the Caribbean and Malaysia. Air Methods brings extensive experience
in the rotary-wing aviation side and operations, purchasing and maintenance are all thoroughly understood and controlled. The combination of Air Methods
aviation expertise and Lundberg’s tourism specialty was seen as the ideal structure to develop and grow the already highly successful business that
the Chevaliers had built.
During “the Chevalier years,” the company was involved in an industry group that approached major helicopter manufacturers in an attempt to produce a better aircraft that suited the needs of the helicopter industry, while being quieter and less intrusive to the public. The result of those efforts was a co-operation between the user-industry and Airbus, formerly known as Eurocopter, which saw the genesis of the EC130 Eco-Star. Blue Hawaiian was the launch customer for the EC130 and commenced operating the type in 2001. Subsequent co-operation with Airbus resulted in the later-improved T2 variant for Blue Hawaiian, one of the first customers putting the type into service in 2012. The T2s operated by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters include an avionics package that was developed by Blue in conjunction with Airbus. Thanks to those efforts, the STC’d Garmin G500-H 750/650 combination avionics suite is now available as an option on new aircraft from the factory. By late 2017 Blue Hawaiian Helicopters’ fleet included eleven H130 T2s, fourteen H130 B4s and six AS350 B2s.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters operates throughout the Hawaiian Islands and is the only company with a presence on four of the major islands. The majority of Blue Hawaiian’s H130 T2s are based on Maui and Waikoloa, Big Island where the demands of high altitude work and longer distance flights gain the greatest advantage from the aircraft’s increased power and performance. The newer machines will also be operated from other bases on occasion to cover demand, address maintenance needs and maintain pilot proficiency on both H130 variants. With its extra 100hp using the same fuel quantity as the older models, the H130 T2 can also offer greater endurance if that extra power is not required for a particular flight profile. Reduced fuel burn also means potentially less wear on engine components, promising increased reliability and possibly extended time between overhaul (TBO) intervals. Blue Hawaiian is putting more hours on the H130 T2 and their engines than any other operator in the world and have already sent up to three engines back to Turbomeca for overhaul. In Lundberg’s words, “the engines came back clean as a whistle, and the TBO on two engines has since been increased to 4,800 hrs.”
Specific type advantages that led to Blue Hawaiian making such a major commitment to the H130 T2 as its new platform of choice are that it is a state-of-the-art machine with improved safety. It boasts a crashworthy fuel system and crash-attenuating seats, a larger engine, increased gross weight capability and better CofG envelope, while offering a noticeably better ride with substantially reduced vibration levels, compared to its predecessor types. Lundberg summed it up; “The H130 T2 is a much more advanced and more sophisticated aircraft—a major improvement over the earlier AS350 series.” The smoothness, space and comfort of the newer machine make it a highly attractive offering for tourism operators “Our current fleet is the right size for today’s demand,” stated Lundberg, “We’re seeing double-digit increases in demand on all the islands annually and I think that we’ll eventually grow the company and take on more helicopters. It’s a good product and we’re really happy with the H130 T2 as a package.”
If there were to be a replacement model for the H130 T2 – a hypothetical ‘T3’ – Lundberg quotes reduced noise as the major factor he would desire in the new aircraft. “Noise is a significant concern in our industry and that was the key reason for our work with Eurocopter and Airbus in the design of the H130 series, which is still the quietest helicopter in its class. Work still needs to continue though; developing rotor blades and systems to ensure noise levels continue to reduce. That’s the key to the future of helicopters. We hope that with newer technology it’ll result in quieter aircraft,” he opined. The second item on Lundberg’s wish list for a new machine is a reduction in price. Technologies advance and prices rise accordingly, but he sees the pricing trend of a new machine well beyond the reach of many operators. “The development of the H130 was able to benefit from much of the existing technology and structure of the AS350 series on which it is based. Brand new types will be faster and quieter, but will also be totally new airframes and systems,” said Lundberg, who can’t see many tour operators being willing or able to spend maybe seven million dollars on a new machine.
Without detracting from the tourism operation in any way, there is a move towards increasing the amount of utility work that Blue Hawaiian conducts, simply as a way of diversifying the company’s business portfolio. Camera-ship pilot Tim Perry is chief pilot for the Part 133 (utility, non-tourism) operations and has recently been carrying out multiple flights to remove sections of a shipwreck from a reef. The company is involved in the removal of feral cattle from sensitive areas and many other one-off jobs are conducted with no detriment to the tourism operations. Lundberg is quick to stress that there is no intention to depart from the major focus on tourism flights, but notes that it would be shortsighted to ignore the potential additional business able to be conducted by the capable fleet and personnel that Blue has on hand. The utility work also provides a way to smooth out fluctuations in the demand for tourism flights. Alongside the diversification into more utility work, Blue is diversifying its tourism operation too. Working with the new/old brand of Hawaii Helicopters, Blue has developed a new and distinctive color scheme that reflects Hawaiian culture and is targeting a younger, more adventurous clientele; setting up partnerships with several adventure-tourism outlets to satisfy the demand for more physical and interactive tours. Lundberg stresses that they are not promoting ‘thrill-rides’ but are looking to work together with providers of such activities as ATV riding, horse ranches and zip-lines to provide combination adventure tours. It is intended that the brand will be marketed for flights on most of the islands; Molokai, Hawaii Island, Maui and Oahu. “Oahu is where I see our biggest opportunity for growth right now,” Lundberg stated. “We only have three permanently stationed helicopters on Oahu but it has the highest population and has some really beautiful areas on the back side of the island.” The potential for growth on Hawaii Island is limited as virtually all flights are over the volcano national park and are dependent on a finite number of flight allocations. Without purchasing other operators to obtain their allocations, there is little to no chance of increasing business in that area so growth must be targeted at other islands. Hawaiian tourism in general is currently increasing at around 3% annually; Kona has re-introduced its international airport and is taking inbound flights direct from Japan.
Although Blue is the dominant operator in the Hawaiian tourism scene, it is only a very small part in the Air Methods operation and Lundberg advised that being part of such a large company provided major benefits to Blue Hawaiian. “Air Methods established a tourism division with its own president, with the intention of creating a fully experiential division with personnel fully-versed in all aspects of tourism; not just providing tour flights. We can also utilize the purchasing power of Air Methods in the event that we decide to buy more aircraft, but can also get access to existing Air Methods resources.” Lundberg gave an example of the latest addition to the Blue Hawaiian fleet, formerly an air medical H130 B4, the 3,000-hour machine was given a full 12-year overhaul; refurbished, repainted, and now on the line and indistinguishable from a new machine, at a fraction of the cost. Also, key to the success of Blue Hawaiian is the cadre of vastly experienced personnel. “I’m lucky to have a fantastic team of senior aviation executives,” enthused Lundberg. “Our Director of Operations Eric Lincoln has been with Blue Hawaiian for 20 years and plays an integral role in the success of our company. The same goes for our previous Maintenance Director Troy Atkinson and our current Director of Maintenance David Sellers. Every teammate, from our reservation agents and base managers to our sales and marketing team and all of our pilots, are responsible for making Blue Hawaiian the leader in helicopter tourism.” Lundberg is highly complementary of the company’s previous management as well. “Dave and Patty Chevalier and David Griffin led this company for 30 years and in all that time they were absolutely committed to safety and customer service excellence. This led to Blue Hawaiian Helicopters being named the first company in the United States to be certified under the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS), the first helicopter tour company to be certified by the HAI Platinum Program of Safety and Level-2 certified under ISBAO (International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations). Equally committed to technology, David Chevalier was the one to put in that first order for ten H130 T2s. That was visionary and he saw the long-term benefit. I have been given the great privilege of taking over a company with an incredible foundation.” Despite making the decision to sell Blue Hawaiian, David Chevalier is still readily available for advice and Lundberg admits he is in regular contact with him to seek his experience and industry wisdom. “He still bleeds Blue,” quipped Lundberg. The company now employs around 275 people, including 58 pilots, and Lundberg believes that the employees are what really make the difference. “Helicopters are just one part of the experience we deliver. What truly leaves a lasting impression on our guests are our teammates.” Blue Hawaiian currently flies around 40,000 hours and carries more than 200,000 passengers annually. The awe-inspiring experience for customers is what generates the powerful word-of-mouth advertising and public awareness.
With regard to the future of Blue Hawaiian, Lundberg does see potential for substantial growth in diverse areas. The establishment of the tourism division within Air Methods opens the way for air-tour expansion into the mainland USA, and the focus on growing into an ‘experiential’ tourism business creates opportunities to expand into areas outside aviation, building on partnerships with such activities as heli-skiing. Already the largest operator in Hawaii, with a Hawaiian fleet four times the size of its nearest competitor and the only operator to operate from five bases on all four main islands, Blue Hawaiian’s proven, successful business model and reputation will no doubt give it a substantial head-start in expansion efforts outside the Hawaiian Islands.