Scheduled commercial helicopter services have been tried in many markets around the world, but few have succeeded. One major exception is found in Hong Kong, the former British Crown colony that returned to Chinese control in 1997 to become a special administrative region or SAR, for short.
Operating out of a smartly designed three-story terminal complex within the Hong Kong Macau Ferry Terminal Building, Sky Shuttle Helicopters Ltd. today operates so-called cross-boundary services to Macau, a former Portuguese territory that is now also a SAR, and from Macau to the city of Shenzhen, in the neighboring Chinese province of Guangdong. Shenzhen is a major city in the special economic zone just over the PRC border from Hong Kong. The zone is home for major manufacturing and other commercial enterprises.
Between Hong Kong and Macau, Sky Shuttle operates 27 round trips a day and another 10 between Macau and Shenzhen.
The company provides services through its newly acquired fleet of five medium-twin engine AgustaWestland AW139s with a sixth 12-passenger aircraft scheduled for delivery in October this year. As business demands, the additional aircraft will permit the company to add five more frequencies a day on the HK-Macau run, according to Alfred Li, commercial director.
In conjunction with acquisition of the new AW139 fleet, the company last year adopted its new name and logo as part of a rebranding program. Currently during peak periods, there’s a departure every 30 minutes, but as demand warrants, the frequencies could come every 20 minutes. For long periods of public holidays, the company adds an additional six round trips each way between Hong Kong and Macau.
The additional aircraft will also permit Sky Shuttle to operate charter flights to the city of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province and a major commercial and industry center in the sprawling Pearl River Delta of south China. According to Li, the company is at this time merely "exploring" the possibility of charter flights for the route. It would involve an approximate 50-minute flight from Macau.
At its Hong Kong base, Sky Shuttle’s rooftop helipad has two landing positions. On the level below is a comfortable departure lounge at which waiting passengers may partake of such Chinese fare as dim sum, dumplings, tea, coffee or soft drinks. Free wi-fi access is provided and there are two small VIP waiting rooms.
In Macau, a similar but different style setting of the lounge is maintained in the Ferry building. Departing passengers pass through normal security and clear immigration, then proceed to the lounge while awaiting their boarding. Passengers arriving in Macau have the advantage of using the special channel through immigration ordinarily reserved for diplomatic personnel. The helipad has one position for landings and takeoffs plus a runway.
Currently, Sky Shuttle has some 250 employees, of whom 30 are pilots, mostly from England, Australia or New Zealand.
While traffic for the helicopter company suffered during the global economic downturn for much of 2009, Li noted that moving into the third quarter, business had picked up. Without disclosing specific load factors, Li did acknowledge operating at "more than 50 percent." Further improvement is predicted for the months ahead, too. However, on Saturday, which is the busiest of the week for the carrier, flights operate mostly or entirely full.
Fare for the 36-mile hop over the South China Sea between Hong Kong and Macau is about $300 one-way and between Macau and Shenzhen it’s $244 one-way. Operations at Shenzhen are carried out on the tarmac at Baoan Intl Airport.
Given the relatively steep fare structure for the short runs, it’s not surprising that many of the passengers flown by Sky Shuttle are senior business executives, diplomats, celebrities, high government officials and, increasingly, high rollers headed for Macau’s booming casinos. Tickets for such casino VIPs are provided, of course, by the hosting properties.
Gaming is Macau’s number one and essentially its sole industry these days. Thanks to a new law enacted by the Chinese government in 2002, foreign entities are free to invest in Macau. As a result, virtually every name familiar to gaming in Las Vegas is now well established in Macau. These include the Sands, the Venetian, MGM Grand, Hard Rock, Wynn and Wynn Encore, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Sofitel and Mandarin Oriental, with more on the drawing board.
Those hotels also look to Sky Shuttle to lay on charters to move their celebrity guests and other VIPs directly from Macau to the Hong Kong Intl Airport to catch their onward flights. A daily charter provided by SkyShuttle is the so-called "money run." As the name suggests, the cargo consists entirely of bags of cash brought from casinos under guard to the Macau heliport for transfer to banks in Hong Kong.
Sky Shuttle maintains its own Flight Operations Control Center at its Hong Kong base. It also has its own maintenance base on Coloane Island, one of two islands that with the peninsula extending out from mainland China make up the city-state of Macau. Maintenance and repair work is contracted out to AirTech, which employs 30 licensed engineers and mechanics from around the world to provide professional aircraft maintenance. Principle of Sky Shuttle is Cheyenne Chan, CEO.