HELICOPTER SEYCHELLES GONE FOR GOOD FROM THE SKIES OVER THE ARCHIPELAGO?
Many questions have been asked since the beginning of the month about Helicopter Seychelles, and if indeed the message now seen on the company website will stick, or only be temporary, which reads:
Helicopter Seychelles regrets to announce it has ceased operating commercial flying services.
No further reservations will be accepted. For inquiries regarding existing bookings, please call (+248) 4385858.
We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and wish you safe travels.
In service for 20 years before the sudden end, or perhaps temporary end only, was announced early in April, Air Seychelles was a regular sight in the skies over the islands of Mahe, Praslin, La Digue the latter only reachable by air via helicopter and a number of other islands, private, exclusive and hidden from prying eyes of the paparazzi of this world like North Island, where guests are whisked to straight from their international flight from the main airport, to arrive and depart in near anonymity as they prefer.
In mid 2010 it was reported here that Helicopter Seychelles was in merger talks with its main rotor wing competitor Zil Air, and after initial success to bringing the two operations together, for cost savings and other financial considerations, the short lived marriage equally suddenly broke up again and the two companies were back at competing terms. Helicopter Seychelles underwent a fresh auditing process by the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, before being granted their Air Operator Certificate or in short AOC, which permits operations to commence under a set of strict rules and regulations CAAs set in compliance with ICAOs binding requirements. With operations resumed, the airline continued flights, and though no financial details could be ascertained, there was speculation over the bounced merger and the impact on the companys balance sheet and bottom line and the fact that the available operating capital was bleeding away.
Then came March 2012 and at least three known incidents took place, which made the company issue a public statement to which the SCAA reacted sharpish, the resulting in the announcement that the company would not just suspend but cease operations.
What happened was that according to an impeccable source with deep insight into the aviation sector in the Seychelles, two of the three helicopters of the company suffered engine malfunctions, leading to an emergency landing of one of the crafts near the companys main hangar at Providence. While no passengers were on board, the heli was returning from dropping off passengers in Praslin, the skids were seriously damaged and the tail rotor did touch the water. No one was injured but the helicopter was due to undergo major repairs of course. Only days later did the companys second helicopter suffer an emergency landing while on a ferry flight to South Africa, when due to another engine malfunction it had to land in Madagascar, raising the red flags amongst the safety oversight inspectors at the SCAA. Both incidents are under ongoing investigation by the SCAAs personnel and no final report has been filed by the time of going to press with this article.
Helicopter Seychelles then announced a temporary halt to operations, stating their intent to introduce new equipment before resuming flights again, but with the SCAA seeking answers and compliance assurances that was apparently not going to happen just that easily.
Subsequently the two following and clearly conflicting statements were issued AFTER the incidents, first the one by Helicopter Seychelles and then by the SCAA as shown below:
22 March 2012
Dear Trade Partners
OPERATIONAL SUSPENSION FOR HELICOPTER FLEET UPGRADE
For 20 years, we have operated a safe flying service under the watchful eye of the local aviation regulator, the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, and with your enthusiastic support. We are very proud of our unblemished safety record and commitment to upholding the highest standards of flying performance, aircraft maintenance and customer service.
In light of a few minor incidents recently involving our helicopters, and all without personal injury, we have decided today to suspend our flying operations briefly pending an operational safety review and complete replacement of our existing fleet.
We are taking this decisive action in full consultation with the SCAA to ensure that the safety of our passengers and crew is never compromised. It underlines our absolute commitment to maintain safety as our foremost priority. We seek to preserve Seychelles’ international reputation as an environment where aviation is conducted to the very highest standards.
With immediate effect, we will temporarily cease to operate all aircraft from our existing fleet. This will necessarily cause a brief interruption to our operational commitments to you, which we deeply regret and for which we offer our very sincere apologies. However, we expect the hiatus to be short-lived and we ask for your patience while we introduce new aircraft to service.
In the coming days, a new aircraft will join Helicopter Seychelles’ fleet, providing a new level of luxury charter service to the nation’s inner islands. The fresh arrival – S7-NMK – is the very latest model Bell JetRanger BIII and is expected to receive certification imminently.
Next, we are taking steps to acquire a second and larger single-engine helicopter to carry greater payloads of passengers and luggage. It will be equipped with a rapid re-configuration facility to support medical evacuation flights, with stretcher carrying capability.
Meanwhile, in the coming weeks, we expect to further underline our safety credentials by achieving confirmation of full compliance with the latest European maintenance safety standards which have been adopted in this country. The award of the EASA Part 145 certification will clearly demonstrate our uncompromising engineering standards.
Our company remains fully committed to providing a commercial helicopter flying service for Seychelles well into the years ahead. As such, several projects are in progress to re-align our offering to fit better the present and future needs of our clients.
We re-entered a difficult market in November last year with an operation and aircraft fleet which met every technical and regulatory requirement. We did so with awareness that we had your encouragement and committed support. We remain extremely grateful for that.
With the actions we are announcing today and our future commitment to safety, new investment and fair pricing, we would ask for your continued confidence in us.
Thank you for your attention and we look forward to continue building good relationships with each of you in the weeks and months ahead.
Capt Matt Hayes
CEO, Helicopter Seychelles Ltd
To this the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority responded with a counter statement which in part reads:
SCAA clarifies its position with regards to comments made in Seychelles Nations and other publications
After several references and queries made in the press related to Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority (SCAA) following Helicopter Seychelles Limited (HSL) decision to stop their operation, the Authority would like to clarify and state a few facts in relation to the cessation of HSL operations.
With regards to Helicopter Seychelles, it is to be noted that following a rigorous 7 month certification process, SCAA issued Helicopter Seychelles with an AOC on 8th November 2011.
Helicopter Seychelles informed SCAA in writing on 21st March 2012, that following three incidents, they were suspending operations temporarily.
On the 29th March 2012 Helicopter Seychelles sent a "Trade Communiqué" by email to trade partners announcing that it is recommencing operations with full backing of SCAA, quoting:
"The SCAA is satisfied that our aircraft, our pilots, our engineers, our operational support team and maintenance facilities comply fully with their rigorous requirements. They do not judge us lightly and rightly so". The Authority would like to confirm that this Trade Communiqué was issued without prior knowledge of the Authority and the statement made without consultation with SCAA.
Following discussions with HSL relating to the incidents and mitigating actions that had been implemented since then, the Authority agreed for HSL to resume operations.
On 30th March 2012 the Authority suspended HSL AOC in view of certain lapses in regulatory compliance.
On the 04th April the Authority was formally advised by the HSL Accountable Manager that HSL would with immediate effect be ceasing operation and trading as a company.
In a second Trade Communiqué again without consultation with the Authority, dated 03rd April 2010 Helicopter Seychelles also referred to "the extremely demanding requirements of the Seychelles CAA". The Authority would like to state that the regulatory regime that Helicopter Seychelles is subject to is the same as that other operators are subjected to and comply with minimum standards set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
However one now looks at it, one thing is certain that Helicopter Seychelles is no longer operating and for all purposes, unless an airborne knight in shining armour with deep pockets appears at the horizon and flies to the companys rescue, the era of HSL has after 20 years come to an end. Many will see this with regret, on personal grounds of relations with the management and staff of HSL, others out of fear that a newly created monopoly will impact on fares and tariffs for island hopping, scenic flights and air transfers, and yet others out of sentiment that a regular sight in the skies over the archipelagos islands is now gone for good.
What remains to be said is continued happy landings to Zil Airs fleet of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft news on the introduction of the latter was also broken here and a sad good bye to Helicopter Seychelles, for now that is.