A shortage of helipads has the booming helicopter tours business scrambling for new sites.
Chopper firm revs up for Christmas
This Christmas season, Aerogulf Services has one thing at the top of its wishlist: a new helipad. The Dubai-based helicopter operator is trying to rev up its sightseeing business but has been slowed by its current location at Dubai International Airport. "It's all about location, location, location," said Capt Andreas Engeli, a pilot and marketing manager for Aerogulf. Flying out of the airport means customers must book days in advance, submit their passport details to police authorities and finally clear the airport's extensive security checkpoints. This discouraged many spur-of-the-moment customers, he said. "The passport requirement has hampered business." The helicopter tours business is growing in the Emirates, where new hotels and resorts are being built as the country increasingly relies on the tourism industry to supplant some of its traditional oil and gas revenues. In Dubai, tourism accounts for roughly 18 per cent of annual GDP, according to the Government. For helicopter operators, tourism represents a way to branch out of offshore oil and gas contracts and emergency medical flights, and into new business streams. For Dh9,500 (US$2,588), Aerogulf offers a 45-minute tour on a Bell 212 helicopter, which seats up to eight passengers. And despite the appearance of chill economic winds circling the region, neither Aerogulf nor its rival helicopter operators report any slowdown as a result of the economic crisis. The allure of being whisked over Dubai's famous man-made islands may be a tempting draw, but a shortage of helipads in the Emirates is limiting the growth of the businesses. "The location in helipads is almost zero in Dubai," said Capt Andrew Masterson, the marketing and security manager at Helidubai, a VIP helicopter service based at the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). New road construction plans through the DIFC may force Helidubai to move away next year, but it was in the process of building two new pads in Deira and Bur Dubai, said Capt Masterson. After successfully carrying 10,000 passengers on sightseeing tours over Dubai, Falcon Aviation Services is on the verge of offering its helicopter tours over the capital. It uses Emirates Palace hotel grounds as a landing site when it ferries businessmen and dignitaries between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. To serve the sightseeing business, it is working with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), Abu Dhabi's largest developer of hotels and tourism projects, to build a helipad somewhere near the city centre. A glimmer of expansion hope flashed for Aerogulf when a new helipad was recently built at Festival City in Dubai. But Falcon Aviation was the first to swoop in and secure the site, said Capt Engeli. With landing pads such a treasured commodity, "if you snooze, you lose", he said. The 30-year-old Aerogulf, which until five years ago focused exclusively on offshore oil and gas shuttles, can console itself with an impending delivery of a Bell/Agusta tilt-rotor helicopter. The aircraft lifts off like a helicopter, but its rotors rotate to fly like an aeroplane. The modification allows for much faster travelling speeds and longer distances. The first tilt-rotor to grace the Emirates skies and serve dignitaries and royals would be used by Aerogulf beginning in 2011, said Capt Engeli. firstname.lastname@example.org