A helicopter widely used to support the global energy industry may return to service in a few weeks after a nearly eight-month grounding because of engine problems, though two of its largest operators disagree on the likely timing.
Most of the global fleet of Eurocopter EC225s have been barred by regulators from flying over water since October after two incidents last year that forced aircraft to ditch in the waters of the North Sea while servicing oil platforms off the coast of Scotland.
The twin-engine helicopter is one of few available types able to carry large numbers of workers and equipment to remote offshore oil and gas platforms.
Canada's CHC Helicopter operates 30 of the grounded aircraft, and said Thursday that it expected the helicopters to start returning to overwater service "in a matter of weeks," subject to approval from regulators and clients.
"The objective is to return [them] to safe, overwater flight," said T.R. Reid, a CHC spokesman.
Rival Bristow Group Inc. said it doesn't expect its dozen EC225s to return to revenue service until the fourth quarter.
The grounding has forced energy companies operating in the North Sea and off the coast of Brazil and Australia to make contingency plans such as bringing in replacement helicopters, sharing aircraft and leaving workers on offshore platforms for longer periods.
Houston-based Bristow has estimated that around 80 of the affected aircraft were left idle world-wide, exacerbating an already-tight supply market for helicopters as energy companies expand into more remote regions.
Eurocopter, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., has told helicopter operators and their clients in recent weeks that it has found the cause of last year's incidents. The company is working with regulators on interim fixes as well as a redesign of the helicopter's gearbox. Bristow said that could take more than a year to complete.
"Eurocopter is confident that, once the safety measures are validated by the airworthiness authorities, the first EC225s can return to full service by the end of June [or] middle of July 2013," the EADS unit said in an email.
The Eurocopter's return to service in the early summer would coincide for one of the busiest periods for energy companies in the North Sea, when they usually conduct maintenance because of more clement weather.
Some aircraft are being tested over land, where regulators haven't instituted a ban.
The two EC225s that ditched in the North Sea because of gearbox problems--with no injuries--were operated by CHC and Bond Offshore Helicopters.
Scotland-based Bond, which has three grounded aircraft, on Thursday declined to forecast when it might return them to service. "We continue to work with Eurocopter, regulators, other operators and our customers to achieve the earliest safe return to flight for the aircraft," the company said in a statement.
Bill Chiles, Bristow's chief executive, told analysts Thursday on a postearnings call that he was unconcerned that some rivals may restart flying before the company.
"Some may not agree with our timeline. I really don't worry about that," said Mr. Chiles.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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