Despite numerous restrictions and uncertainties, the Chinese civil rotorcraft sector has long been touted as the next big thing likely to reshape the global market.
Helicopters remain chronically under-utilised across the country despite Beijing’s ambitions to develop its domestic rotorcraft industrial base and the obvious willingness of Western OEMs to facilitate this goal.
Prohibitive airspace regulations, a lack of local infrastructure to support helicopter operations and the time and expense required to get rotorcraft into service have all served to stifle growth in recent years.
However, as we discover in the latest issue of Rotorhub magazine, there are some promising indicators that the Chinese market might finally be entering its next phase of growth.
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2014, the number of civil and parapublic helicopters registered in China reached 583 and the expectation is that as many as 2,000 will be required by 2032.
While this level of expansion is impressive, the Asian powerhouse has a long way to go before it reaches a civil helicopter fleet approaching anywhere near that of Europe’s (10,000+) or the US (12,000+).
Indeed, as Bell Helicopter pointed out to our Asia-Pacific Editor Gordon Arthur, if China was to operate the same number of helicopters per head of population as the US, the skies would be filled with some 32,000 rotorcraft.
Whatever levels of growth Western OEMs internally forecast for China, there has been an active drive by all the major manufacturers to increase their footprint in-country through local offices and partnering agreements.
Airbus Helicopters’ long presence in China unsurprisingly gives it the leading market share of 38% (if piston-engined types are excluded) followed by Bell with 26%, Sikorsky’s 11% and AgustaWestland on 9%.
These companies are well aware that the People’s Republic is never going to be an easy place to do business, and only the most savvy will thrive given the various factors at play – intellectual property issues, the wider political situation and risk of components being repurposed for military use, as Pratt & Whitney Canada found out the hard way.
For me, the biggest uncertainty is the role Beijing envisages for state-owned domestic manufacturer Avicopter. Surprisingly, the company still only holds a market share of 1%, but is starting to raise levels of production and make some significant sales. It announced contracts for 46 AC311s in November 2014 at Airshow China in Zhuhai, for example.
It seems unlikely the Chinese government will remove all airspace restrictions and allow a full opening up of its civil rotorcraft market before the Avicopter product range reaches full maturity.
Elsewhere in the latest issue, RotorHub spoke to the Hong Kong Government Flying Service (GFS), and the story of its operations is fascinating.
The two aircraft were originally chosen as there was no single helicopter model at the time that could satisfy all mission requirements – but this two-type concept has thrown up logistic, training and currency challenges.
Now, with the emergence of the super medium segment, the GFS has realised it can replace its mixed fleet with a single type – the H175 and AW189 are therefore the presumed favourites to take the tender (with the Bell 525 as a possible wild card).
Outside of the oil and gas sector’s particular requirements, this is an illustrative example that the super medium class will fill the ‘sweet spot’ for many operators.