Successful Canadian air carrier is experiencing growth through acquisitions and alliances
BY John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
January / February 1999
VANCOUVER, B.C. — This is not your typical helicopter operator. From anywhere in the world, one can book a flight into Victoria, B.C., on Helijet Airways, via a global reservations system and Canadian Airlines. Once in British Columbia, a traveler can take a tour of the mountainous coastal region of the Pacific Northwest, prior to departing by boat to Alaska or venturing south on a Helijet Airways flight to Boeing Field in Seattle, where a quick ground connection can be made to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
At Helijet Airways, they don't do logging; they don't fight fires. They just signed their first air medical contract. What this company is first and foremost, explains Rick Hill, VP of marketing and commercial alliances, is an air carrier. Founded in 1986 by president and CEO Daniel Sitnam, Helijet Airways, Inc., is today a limited publicly traded company on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Sitnam and two co-owners, as well as most of the employees, make up the primary stockholders to date in what is officially known as W. M. Helijet Airways, Inc.
After a successful airline business was established, the company branched out in the 1990s through acquisitions and strategic alliances. Plans call for continuing that aggressive posture into the future, primarily with an "eye to the south" — the U.S. market — says Sitnam.
An air carrier first
Says Hill about the company's first priority, "Helijet Airways is very much an airline, one that flies rotary." The company started with eight scheduled roundtrips per day from Vancouver to Victoria in 1986. Today, it flies 45 round trip flight per day, distributed among its four bases of operation:
• Vancouver Harbor (downtown)
• Vancouver International Airport
• Victoria Harbor
• Boeing Field, Seattle.
For scheduled service, the company utilizes a fleet of 12-seat/2-crew Sikorsky S-76 helicopters. "For the passenger appeal, the speed, it's probably the only aircraft available in today's market that gives us all the things we want," says Hill.
The company recently moved into its new 25,000-sq.ft. office/hangar complex at Vancouver International (YVR). The investment reflects management's view that an on-airport presence can play a large role for the company in the years ahead.
Explains Hill, "We moved into the airport environment to really move the business from just point to point — which Vancouver Harbor to Victoria Harbor is — to becoming a feed market as well. And, to prove that helicopters could in fact feed traffic into a major international airport from outlying areas.
"Through that process, we've worked very closely with Canadian Airlines and just recently signed a code share agreement with Canadian. In fact, all of our flights now carry the carrier code of both carriers. So, from a distribution point of view, a travel agent making a reservation would see a Canadian Airlines flight that operates into downtown Victoria. And then it would be shown that it's operated by Helijet Airways."
Currently at YVR, passengers are shuttled from the Helijet terminal to the main airport terminal. In time, Hill sees a direct link to the airport being developed.
"The next step in the process," he says, "is to move the Canadian Airlines part of the operation to the main terminal. That will be S-76s basically coming and going from the commuter gates." Regarding potential airport concerns that mixing fixed wing and rotary equipment in the same environment, Hill adds: "The beauty of this aircraft is that it taxis just like a Dash 7 except that the blades are on top."
In mid-1997, Helijet added what it touts as "North America's first regularly scheduled international helicopter service" between Vancouver and Seattle. "Almost 60 percent of the traffic that uses Boeing Field actually is destined to connect at Sea-Tac, but prefer to land at Boeing, clear customs, and then make a ground transfer," explains Hill.
Besides its airline growth, Helijet Airways has moved to expand through acquisition and strategic alliances. In 1993, it acquired Vancouver Heliport Services, which operates the downtown floating heliport; and, in 1996, it acquired Vancouver Helicopters, which serves as the corporation's charter operator.
Because of the scenery, terrain, and value of the U.S. dollar, British Columbia has become a center for TV and motion picture photography, and Hill estimates that Vancouver Helicopters has garnered some 70 percent of the market share. Tours are also big business, building off the nearby Whistler ski area as well as off the 800,000 passenger base during the summer that is connecting to Alaskan cruise lines.
Recent alliances have come via contracts: One with Hawaii Helicopters under which the company provides island tours; and, its first air medical contract, a five-year deal with the Ministry of Health. Both utilize S-76s.
The company also operates R-22s in Vancouver and Calgary for traffic reports. Other aircraft include a Bell 206, two Eurocopters (A-Star, TwinStar), and a LongRanger.
Sitnam sees the U.S. market as offering the next major growth potential for his company. In particular, he says the Northeast corridor is ripe for rotary development. "A Manhattan to JFK connection is a possibility," he says, "or other short-haul shuttles: city to city or city to airport. There's a market there, but it needs a lot of work and development and infrastructure. Plus, there's a slow, growing interest among the majors (airlines) who are beginning to see what we can do for the higher end customer."