Fleet:7 Sikorsky helicopters
Average flight hours logged per aircraft:80-100 hours per month
Up in the airJune 7, 2016
Joshey Mahabir, general manager for National Helicopter Services, talks to TOGY about Trinidad’s new deepwater market, challenges facing transportation companies in the hydrocarbons industry and plans to foster aviation education in the country. Emerging as a commercial entity in 1989, the firm provides crew transport for almost every oil and gas player in Trinidad.
Can you tell us about your company?
National Helicopters was formed in 1989 as a commercial entity and prior to that, the company was part of the air wing of the National Security of Trinidad and Tobago. The company still provides services for national security operations in Trinidad, supported by the government. We have an arm of our operation that supports the National Operations Centre with their five helicopters. We provide them with technical support, logistics, maintenance, spare parts and pilots.
On the commercial side, we work for most of the oil companies in Trinidad, such as BG Group, BHP Billiton, EOG Resources, Repsol and National Gas Company. We also do a significant amount of ad hoc work from seismic vessels embarking upon seismic and exploratory work.
Right now, we are focused on offshore operations – transporting workers safely to the oil rigs and back. We also do a lot of medical evacuations from Tobago to Trinidad as well as photography, pipeline surveys and other ad hoc work as required, which accounts for close to 10% of total revenue.
National Helicopter prides itself as being a very efficient local company. We have been using the Sikorsky brand of products for more than 30 years. We are able to provide a superior service with our helicopters because our engineers and our pilots know this aircraft inside and out. To date, we have the highest amount of hours placed on the S-76D in the world, the largest S-76D fleet worldwide and we are a launch customer for Sikorsky Corporation, a member of the Lockheed Group.
Many companies provide a helicopter for you, but when the aircraft is down for servicing, you are left with no aircraft to carry on your activity. We provide a 100% reliable service which means that an aircraft is always available to you. If your helicopter is down, you will be assured another helicopter.
This is not the normal approach in the helicopter industry and we pride ourselves on that. I think this aspect of our service is very crucial in terms of keeping our clients. Of course, in a depressed market like this, where price is king, clients may opt to exercise their options and go with other operators.
Who would you say are your largest clients?
I believe Repsol was one of our first customers in Trinidad and Tobago to operate using our very latest helicopters, the S-76D, to great success. These assets have been very reliable and versatile. They have been operating more than 100 hours per month, which is a large amount for any oil company. The average is between 60 to 70 hours per month.
They have been doing a lot of exploration and a lot of drilling. I think they acquired a lot of acreage and rigs from National Gas Company, which has added to their workload.
We initially had a three-year contract, but are currently tendering another contract. We await that outcome anytime now.
Are you interested in entering the deepwater market?
Although BHP Billiton is entering into a deepwater programme, National Helicopter is not currently equipped to provide these services. However, we do plan on becoming an operator in this sector. In the next six to nine months, we will be moving our time and resources towards this goal.
There are two main differences when it comes to moving into the deepwater sector: the range of the helicopters and the capacity of the helicopters. The medium twin aircrafts that we use now can carry 12 passengers up to a 150-nautical-mile return trip.
Deepwater requires more than 250 nautical miles. Therefore, these helicopters, even though they can make it, may have to drop payload. So instead of carrying 14 passengers, they might carry seven. You might even have to drop to a lower number, depending on how far out you need to fly.
In this sense, it’s not feasible or economical for oil companies to have a helicopter going out 250 nautical miles with just four passengers. It would require three or four trips before they could get their full complement of people there.
New long-range aircrafts can carry up to 19 passengers out 250 nautical miles, which can be increased with auxiliary fuel systems.
What are some other challenges related to transporting to deepwater rigs?
There are other factors, such as our aircrafts reaching these points for medical evacuations. As you go further out, it becomes more critical that you to have a backup system that can move passengers into the country in emergency situations. It is a different ball game in terms of the type of equipment and the type of resourcing required.
It is possible to re-fuel on the rigs, but it depends on the type. There are rigs that are equipped with fuel systems, but there is a lot of rigorous testing that is required by civil aviation authorities beforehand. Onshore facilities provide high levels of confidence in their fuel systems, whereas offshore rigs need to be tested on a regular basis.
We need to be prudent. Let’s assume you are heading towards the 250-mile mark, and at 200 miles you develop a problem. If a rig is on fire, you cannot land. Can you turn back and land safely in Trinidad? That’s the issue. Once we leave, the aircraft must be capable of flying back to Trinidad at any point in time.
What is the typical length of contracts for transportation companies?
The market is very volatile. In Trinidad, the model has always been short-term contracts. The longest contract length is about five years, although the majority are for three years. I think BG recently announced a 10-year contract, but there have been a lot of uncertainties and I’m not too sure how they are going to deal with that.
Committing to a 10-year contract in a very dynamic industry can make them vulnerable, especially with lower oil prices. In terms of the North Sea, I understand that contracts are usually for five to 10 years. This is not so in Trinidad.
What are some major changes that have affected your sector since the fall in oil prices?
The only aspect that may have reduced in cost has been negotiation with lessors. We do have some helicopters that have been leased and costs have lowered, although this requires a reciprocal arrangement.
Lessors are willing to reduce costs for a longer-term contract. This has been challenging for us since it is very difficult to extend contracts with low oil prices attracting foreign transport entities into Trinidad that are competing with both National Helicopters and Bristow Helicopters.
We have had all the major players enter into our local market, including CHC Helicopter, Era Helicopters and PHI. The only company that has remained is PHI. These foreign companies have a lot of spare capacity and are now bringing that to Trinidad and Tobago. In this way they are able to reduce their costs, which is very attractive to oil and gas companies. This has made it difficult for us to compete. Although the market is saturated, it’s still an open market.
What are some critical security risks when it comes to handling offshore transport?
The transportation of “dangerous goods” on our helicopters on a daily basis raises some concerns, but our operational staff are fully trained to identify such items and treat with it in the prescribed manner. Safety is our priority and we do not compromise it in any way whatsoever.
How do you see the Trinidadian market in terms of educating and training new pilots for the aviation industry?
There is a need for a lot more aviation experts in the country. We have never had a formal educational institute to churn out some of these required skills. Over the past couple of years, the idea was to create an aviation school, initially to start off training engineers. This institute has been established and programmes are now offered for engineers at the University of Trinidad and Tobago Aviation Institute. With respect to training enough pilots, we have not reached that stage as yet.
However, the government recently purchased assets for the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard Air Wing. They have four AW139s and have purchased simulators for them. The next step for the complex is to create an area where these simulators can be housed and we can actually train our AW139 pilots here. We also want to bring some of the S-76 simulators down to Trinidad. It’s very costly to send our pilots to be trained elsewhere.
The institute is really an incubator for future engineers and later on for future pilots. It is definitely a good thing what the government has done.
The main challenge for any Trinidad-based company is retaining local content. International companies come in and offer very lucrative salaries to pilots and engineers. National Helicopter is a state-run company and we are obliged to keep below certain salaries. Unless we expand that local market through training at the institute, we will not be able to deal with this. If we lose more people and have to hire foreign pilots, this will be very costly for us.
Where do you see your company expanding in the next couple years?
We have already entered into the Guyana market. National Helicopter was the first operator in the country to work with ExxonMobil, and they have struck oil there. We established an office and we intend to pursue more leads within the country. The company also intends to head to different Caribbean Islands to look at alternative means of transportation, not necessarily oil and gas related. Locally, we would be looking at increasing our range of services to include medical transportation and tour operations.