Thu. Jun 8th, 2023

Directional Aviation’s announcement yesterday that it is leveraging two helicopter operators it purchased last year to create Flexjet Private Helicopter promises to shake up the rotorcraft market in a significant way. For years, skittish flyers have eschewed them, concerned about safety.

“It’s a great brand. An endorsement of rotorcraft as a safe and valuable aviation platform by an industry leader such as Flexjet is only good for the industry,” says Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of Blade, which bills itself as an urban mobility platform. He says the safety focus is important. Blade, for example, only works with a select group of operators and has seven people in its safety department.

Flexjet Private Helicopter President Eli Flint tells Forbes one customer is paying repositioning fees so he can fly a Flexjet helicopter on a trip within North Carolina. He’ll fly there and back on the fractional jet he owns through Flexjet and then use the Flexjet Sikorsky S-76 for flights within the state.

Another industry executive says, “Using the Flexjet brand is smart. How do you find a reputable helicopter operator in North Carolina? If you look at what (Wheels Up founder) Kenny (Dichter) did for turboprops and the King Air, before that, many people didn’t want to fly turboprops. He made them mainstream. This could be a big boost for helicopters.”

Last year Directional bought U.S.-based Associated Aircraft Group and U.K.-based Halo Aviation, giving it an entry into the rotorcraft market. At the time, it was billed as a way to understand the urban mobility market with the upcoming introduction of eVTOLs. Directional has ordered 200 from Embraer-backed Eve. Rival NetJets signed an MOU for 150 eVTOLs from Lilium Air Mobility earlier this year.

Flexjet’s 12 U.S. helicopters are based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and will mainly serve missions in the New York City region. About half the fleet will be relocated to Miami for the winter, and expansion to London is coming soon via Halo. The dual-engine S-76s will be flown with two Flexjet pilots, says Flint.

“It’s the first and only time somebody has truly integrated helicopters into the fractional jet space. It’s owned and operated by us. It’s something we will completely control. It means a lot because we are taking that level of safety and resources and applying it to the helicopters,” Flint says.

There was only one pilot flying the helicopter that crashed in January 2020 killing basketball legend Kobe Bryant. A report from the National Transportation Safety Board was critical. “This pilot really wanted to get where he was going,” NTSB Vice Chair Bruce Landsberg told CNN, terming it “a crash, and not an accident.” He said, “An accident (is) just something that’s unforeseen, unpredictable if you will. Unfortunately, this wasn’t.”

Regarding what Flexjet is selling, the focus is fractional shares and leases. A 1/16th share provides 25 flight hours per year. It is priced at $200,000 with a $12,000 per month management fee and an occupied hourly rate of $2,750. Current fuel variable is $900 per hour. That works out to about $9,500 per hour, according to Flint. Contracts run from 24 to 60 months. When the fleet isn’t being used by owners, the helicopters will be available for on-demand charter.

Hopping over traffic will be a core mission. It’s only six minutes by helicopter from Teterboro Airport to Manhattan’s West Side Heliport at the foot of Hudson Yards. Flint says “hot load” transfers mean as soon as your jet lands and stops on the tarmac, a helicopter will be waiting, blades turning, and you will be escorted to the chopper. Bags will be moved over, and Flexjet has developed a runner service for customers who have too much luggage for the helicopter.

However, another application is owners will also be able to fly out of their backyards if allowed under local flight restrictions and if an audit finds a safe landing spot. That could mean flying from your home in Westchester County to a meeting in suburban Boston and back, the type of mission where while private jets save time compared to the airlines, there is still wasted time getting to and from airports.

Flint says conversations with owners have been revealing a laundry list of places they fly their jets where there is still a substantial drive after they land, from lake houses to golf courses.

The helicopters which currently seat six or seven are all being reconfigured with seven seats. They are also getting Flexjet Red Label luxury interiors, and Flint says he is currently in the process of acquiring more S-76s.

While much industry focus is on battery-powered eVTOLs, helicopters like the type Flexjet is using, with a range of 300 nautical miles, promise to be around for some time. “They have a different mission profile,” says one executive. First-generation eVTOLs are expected to have more limited passenger capacity and range.

In terms of growth potential, Flint declined to provide any projections. However, Wheels Up was able to grow its King Air fleet from an initial three airplanes to over 80.

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