The ‘Quiet Revolution’ at Airbus Helicopters

By S.L. Fuller | January 23, 2018
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Photo by S. Kervella, courtesy of Airbus Helicopters

Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters

Airbus Helicopters’ figures for civil business in 2017 are as follows:

  • Orders: 350 (gross)
  • Deliveries: 409
  • Compared to 2016, deliveries were down nine units.
  • Airbus received 335 in net orders in 2017, which is down 18 compared to 2016.
  • Overall backlog at the end of 2017 was 692 helicopters.
  • In 2017, Airbus had 50% of the market share worldwide for rotorcraft delivered to the civil and parapublic markets.
  • The General Aviation Manufacturers Association showed in its shipments and billings report that Airbus was leading the way for rotorcraft, both in the third quarter of 2017 and in the year as a whole.
  • Once again, there were no bookings for heavy helicopters in the oil and gas market, but the H175 has proven capability in that sector.
  • The Super Puma had a record year with 54 units booked.

But beyond the figures (financial performance is to be announced Feb. 15) lies the story of how a helicopter manufacturer, within a larger manufacturing giant, has attempted to adapt to a shifting market.

“This is probably an expression you have heard me use many times: ‘Never waste a good crisis,’” said Airbus Helicopters CEO Guillaume Faury. “Over the last four years, our industry, the helicopter industry, sailed through a very difficult crisis, maybe the worst crisis it has faced in the last few decades.”

He talked at the beginning of the company’s press briefing about Airbus keeping its “ship sailing through the storm” of the down market, maintaining market leadership and bringing its teams closer together.

“This sort of quiet revolution at Airbus Helicopters kept us busy for the last 4 to 5 years,” Faury said. “This was what we called the ‘first wave’ of our transformation plan, and I am really grateful to all the teams who made it a collective success.”

Faury is, perhaps ironically, getting ready to leave Airbus Helicopters for Airbus Commercial Aircraft. It was announced in December 2017 that movement from the top down caused a shakeup, with Airbus CEO Thom Enders declining to seek further mandate beyond April 2019 and COO/President for Commercial Aircraft Fabrice Brégier leaving the company. Not long before that, it was announced that Airbus CTO Paul Eremenko, who founded A3, was leaving his post for a new one at United Technologies Corp.

Faury told reporters during the press briefing he did not have an exact date for when he would leave Airbus Helicopters, although it is set to occur next month.

Guillaume Faury. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters

Guillaume Faury. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters

Airbus has not announced a successor. Faury said he expects an announcement “rather soon,” but he does not know who that person would be, “and it is not up to me to say it anyway,” he remarked.

Whoever the new executive at Airbus Helicopters turns out to be, he or she is set to inherit a company that looks much different than it did those 4 to 5 years ago, as Faury mentioned.

For starters, Airbus Helicopters launched a new brand. In May at the European Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition, Airbus Corporate Helicopters (or ACH) was introduced. That brand offers three different cabin interior lines and provides customers end-to-end service, including shopping consultations. The brand also pledges to help preserve the aircraft’s resale value and comes with a rebranded HCare — HCare First.

A new industrial model has been built around the specialization of Airbus’ production sites. The new blade production facility in Paris-Le Bourget is part of that strategy, which also affects its plants in Marignane, France; Donauwörth, Germany; and Albacete, Spain. Faury noted the company is digitalizing production facilities, using digital shop floors in some final assembly lines. The company broke ground on its first helicopter final assembly line in China. Some production sites are ready to support builds — particularly the production of the H160.

“This year will be the year of first contracts for the H160,” Faury said. “This is something I will miss when I move to Airbus Commercial, seeing the start of the commercial life of the 160.”

The products and services portfolio has been rationalized at Airbus, Faury continued. This was most likely in reference to the divestment of Vector Aerospace. A deal, finalized in November, had StandardAero absorb Vector and dissolve the brand.

That same month, Airbus said it would stop producing the H120. After delivering the last H120 order, the model was added to the “production ceased” list joining the twin-engine Écureuil, the AS355 and the AS350 B2.

“We did that in order to refocus the lower end of our segments, where we believe we can provide added real value to our customers,” Faury said. “This is with innovative and high-tech solutions like the H125 and the H130. These will continue to evolve to become digitalized and connected platforms.”

The heavy-lift X6, whose concept phase was launched in 2015, is currently on hold. Meant to be the H225 Super Puma family successor, the 6X is “likely to become something quite different” from the original plan. Faury explained that the 6X in current form doesn’t match what Airbus sees as future requirements in the military market, and the company can’t make a robust business case for it.

Airbus is now developing platforms that probably didn’t have a robust business case five years ago. An “ambitious innovation roadmap” aims to put Airbus at the forefront of future VTOL systems. That plan includes developing technology that can enable its urban air mobility efforts.

“2018 should be the year when you will see our first fully electric CityAirbus demonstrator taking off,” Faury said. “That is very exciting.”

Faury later mentioned Airbus intends to lead on-demand helicopter booking platforms, and is gearing up to make announcements in that regard this year.

Airbus has its sights set on modernization, across the board. For existing models, that means upgrades. The first H135 equipped with a Helionix avionics suite entered service in September 2017. Faury said the company would look to increase investment in digital assets in nearly all areas.

“Digital will be a key pillar of our roadmap for the next five years. This will be the backbone of what I call the ‘second wave’ of transformation,” Faury said. “This will be about capturing, storing, analyzing and sharing data in order to create and bring new services to ourselves, to our customers and to the industry. It is to improve safety and fleet availability.”

The H125 and H130, he continued, are set to get a digital — something. Details would be divulged at Helicopter Association International’s Heli-Expo next month in Las Vegas. The military and civil versions of the H145 are set to receive new systems and solutions, as will the H160.

Digitization could also mean a change in the workforce. Whether that would manifest in an increase or decrease, Faury could not say. He said he gave the same answer to his teams at Airbus. But he did express that he believes some people will learn about new digital tools and systems, leveraging the skills they already possess. He recommended that everybody embrace these disruptive industrial technologies, learning both while at work and at home how to use them.

This “quiet revolution” Faury described is going to be defined, in large part, by the next CEO of Airbus Helicopters. Faury had this advice to pass on to whomever that becomes:

“What message do I want to pass on to my successor, as I hand him the keys? First, keep going on the industrial transformation. This makes a real difference. Second, explore new market opportunities and work and capitalise on the success of the H160. This is a game changer. Third, I would recommend exploring the vast opportunities that digitalisation gives us. Also, address and embrace the key technology enablers, electric propulsion, autonomous flight, and new architectures. These have the potential to disrupt in a positive way the conventional helicopter market as we have known it for more than 50 years.

"I will tell him that you are coming on board a fantastic company, at a historic and exciting moment for our industry. I hope you will enjoy as much as I have.”

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