May 06, 2013
During the early days of the helicopter, engineers began dreaming of a new age of regional and commuter air transport.
They imagined inner-city heliports where large 30-50-seat helicopters or even hybrids such as the rotor tip-jet-powered Fairey Rotodyne could take passengers from the middle of London or Paris to other major cities faster than even the speediest rail service. At a time when fuel prices were low and cities were enjoying major investment, the idea of helicopters operating in and out of city heliports seemed feasible.
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed; some of the new emerging designs, the impressive Rotodyne included, turned out to be extremely noisy even from a long distance; it was this factor alone that made airlines think twice about the idea. Today, city heliports do operate, but only for those few rich enough to be able to afford them.
But now the idea of using helicopters to service commuter and regional routes is beginning to re-emerge, at least in Europe and in the U.S. Factors that forced engineers to abandon the idea of rotary-wing city-center passenger services are now affecting the large airports that serve major cities. While air traffic continues to grow, concerns about noise and environmental impacts have kept airport infrastructure from growing in line with demand, resulting in airport congestion.
In the back rooms of AgustaWestland and Eurocopter, engineers are now thinking about how the helicopter could help solve or alleviate airport congestion. “If you want to build a runway and you are not in the planning phase today, you will probably not have it until the late 2020s,” says Lutz Bertling, CEO of Eurocopter.
“While it appears to be a mainly European issue, it is not that much different in the U.S. and Canada. Of course in some areas it is easy to create additional capacity, but in others it is more crowded—take the [U.S.] East Coast for example,” he adds.
Bertling and others believe that the major factor now is the constrainednumber of slots at major airports. Currently, each takeoff and landing—whether it is a 19-seat Beechcraft 1900, a 180-seat Airbus A320 or a Boeing 777—requires a runway slot. Bertling argues that it makes more sense to take smaller fixed-wing aircraft out of the equation and free up the slots to make room for larger aircraft.