I missed Geoff Packer’s session at HeliInvestor 2018, but was eager to interview him to understand better the new model of pilot recruitment he has developed. In these continuing tough times for offshore operators, different thinking and more efficient business models are a necessary route back to profitability according to other HeliInvestor presenters such as Dan Rosenthal, CEO of Milestone (see HeliInvestor 2018: Alliances or Band-Aids?).
Packer started his career as a craft apprentice at BAe Systems in Lancashire where he worked for over 30 years as a Purchasing Engineer. As a pilot he has worked for both Bristow in Nigeria and for CHC in Aberdeen and Blackpool. He has been CEO of his own company, HeliSpeed, since 2016 and now has nearly 400 helicopter pilots that he can offer to his clients for offshore contract work, ferry flights, flight testing and any other flight requirements. His clients include Airbus, Vector Aerospace and other world leading MROs, lessors and some large offshore helicopter operators, an area he is focusing on for future growth. Packer brought in Larry Alexandre as a non-executive director to assist in the establishment of the business, using Larry’s expertise as a COO at Turbomeca USA and President of Heli-One to hone the business model. The timing is right and and it appears to be working.
HeliSpeed offers its clients quality assured pilots. The contract is a direct one between HeliSpeed and its clients. HeliSpeed maintains the contractual relationship with the pilot, normally through limited companies that they have established. All of the licensing, required AOC procedure manual requirements and checks are covered off to ensure regulatory compliance in different jurisdictions. The ‘HeliTrax‘ system developed by HeliSpeed monitors all the pilot licensing and regulatory requirements as well as contract operations.
The advantages of this service for companies requiring only occasional pilot crewing for activities such as ferry flights and ground runs is clear, but what’s the advantage for offshore operators of using HeliSpeed services? In the current volatile commercial environment offshore operators will be reluctant to increase their permanent employed staffing unless they have certainty of contracts going forward. Even then, the ability and recent inclination of oil and gas companies to adjust contracts using their power to terminate at will with short notice periods, inevitably leads offshore operators to seek to achieve the same flexibility with both the aircraft they lease and their personnel. This flexibility has in reality always been available for overseas operations through the use of expatriate pilots, with employment contracts channeled through offshore companies to reduce employment costs and limit security of tenure. The HeliSpeed model offers this option for all jurisdictions, enabling the operator to assess core staffing needs and top up or reduce staffing with HeliSpeed crew as and when needed, a practice referred to as “peak shaving” by Packer. Of course, the HeliSpeed pilots have no security of employment and very limited employment rights in this aircrew version of the ‘gig economy’; but they do have flexibility and an income at a time when many have been laid off and permanent opportunities are limited.
Packer told me that his main demand at the moment is for S92 and AW139 aircrew with a surplus of AW189 and H175 crew available: “There isn’t a pilot shortage; there is a skills shortage. But where there is a skills shortage we can organise type training paid for by the pilot but secured by a guarantee of future work by HeliSpeed”.
At a time when operators may be reluctant to recruit aircrew who need type training, this is a vehicle for pilots to re-skill on different types pending a full time permanent appointment with the knowledge that they have guaranteed income to pay off the training. Packer assured me that Helispeed will pay the guaranteed period even if the end client cancels the contract or terminates early.
A new operational model for offshore helicopter operators is evolving, which could eventually embrace engineering as well as aircrew, driven by economic necessity. The HeliSpeed model being pioneered by Geoff Packer is one part of the changes that the offshore downturn has realised. There will be more to come as the offshore helicopter market adjusts to a new market reality and adopts different business models.
Copyright and full responsibility for the content of this article remains with Allan Blake, an independent Aviation Consultant & Journalist. He is the author of “Dynamic Directors: Aligning Board Structure for Business Success” (Macmillan).
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