Jeremy Cresswell: EC225 ‘band-aid’ requires a definitive answer

Former Eurocopter CEO Dr Lutz Bertliung with an EC225 shaft and gear box connection.
Former Eurocopter CEO Dr Lutz Bertliung with an EC225 shaft and gear box connection.
Opinion by Energy Voice

Last Friday, a team from Eurocopter met the North Sea oil and gas industry’s Step Change Helicopter Safety Steering Group to discuss a set of measures that the company feels will get currently grounded EC225 helicopters back to work.

The company appeared confident that it would secure UK Civil Aviation Authority and European Civil Aviation Authority permission to resume operations with its North Sea fleet following two ditchings.

The fleet has been grounded since October 2012.

Basically, a cocktail of measures are proposed that will keep the aircraft flying … apparently safely … until a new rotor shaft is fully designed, manufactured and approved for retrofitting to the fleet.

They notably include such things as better corrosion prevention, enhanced lubrication, and improved monitoring, including sophisticated crack detection technology.

In a nutshell, they equate to a “band-aid” to buy time while the new rotor shaft is made ready. Problem is, no one on the Eurocopter briefing that I attended appeared able to put a definitive timescale on how long that might take.

The only certainty seemed to be that the design of the rotor is ongoing and that it will be made available from the middle of next year.

So that’s a year already.

We were told that the shaft would then be retrofitted as each aircraft came up for a period of maintenance; so no urgency then. Utter confidence in the “band-aid”. So does that mean up to another year?

CHC seems to think 12-24 months; or at least that is what the company was reported to have told investors just last week.

I would suggest that this issue of time requires a more definitive answer. After all, if I were an offshore worker commuting to and from drilling rigs, production platforms or whatever, the first question I would like an answer to is how long must I live with a temporary fix.

Remember, I can’t just go and choose another company flying different helicopters. I’m stuck with what my employer provides and a Step Change survey of 1,604 workers showed that two-thirds had lost confidence in the EC225.

The equivalent of a collective Gallic shrug of the shoulders by those briefing me and other journalists is not good enough. I’ll be surprised if someone hasn’t run a scenario or three, right down to when each aircraft is due maintenance and when.

Of course, the team at Eurocopters isn’t stupid. The company is populated by highly-trained engineers and decision-makers who know the score. The aircraft they build and lease/sell have to be reliable . . . highly reliable.

They will be acutely aware of how little it can take to destroy the reputation of the company they work for and the classes of aircraft they will have taken great pride in designing and building.

I’m not saying that Eurocopter is being arrogant. That would be unfair, even if a stupid PR officer banned recording by journalists of what was an on-the-record briefing with the current CEO Guillaume Faury and others. He replaced Lutz Bertling in March. It was during his watch that the ditchings occurred.

Transparency is an incredibly important part of the process of regaining credibility with the offshore industry, most of all the guys who have to commute by rotor-wing.

The very fact that Eurocopter is making a point of sitting with the HSSG tells me that the company is doing its best . . . even utmost . . . to share its forensics of and solutions to the rotor shaft problem. However, that transparency has to extend to the media too. Dare I say it, but what is written and said by us lot can have an impact on how Eurocopter emerges from this debacle. If you don’t believe me, just watch how analysts with agendas of their own can wreck perceptions of listed companies; let alone comments made by certain City of London columnists.

I admire the constructive approach that the industry itself is taking to the EC225 affair. It demonstrates the value of Step Change and the HSSG. Other than aviation, shipping and rail, I cannot think of any other industry that is capable of approaching a challenging issue with such cohesion.

But sooner or later the gloves will have to come off. Doubtless solicitors are quietly preparing their knives on behalf of Bond, CHC and other companies forced to make expensive alternative arrangements to plug the gap created by the ditching plus grounding of the 16 remaining EC225s in UK North Sea service.

Meanwhile, I note the deliveries of three new EC225s to customers in Vietnam and Malaysia. Eurocopter’s latest EC225 deliveries involve the Southern Vietnam Helicopter Company (VNH South), along with Awan Inspirasi Sdn Bhd (AISB) and MHS Aviation – both of Malaysia.

Marking the delivery, Faury seized the opportunity. “We are committed to collaborating closely with our customers to ensure that the EC225 remains an important asset for oil and gas operators. We thank customers . . . for their continued confidence in the EC225,” he said.

Presumably the new shafts will be retrofitted to these aircraft too.

Finally, it should be borne in mind that the 16 North Sea aircraft referred to above is about 20% of the global EC225 fleet. I wonder how long it will take Eurocopter to carry out the full fix.