Helicopter Transport is trying to hold the line

February 20, 2000

In Hangar No. 6 at Martin State Airport, the helicopters sit ready -- to fly workers to remote destinations, to set towers in place on new buildings, to capture events on film for television news networks.

Those who fly with Helicopter Transport Services Inc. pay the price of traveling in such high-maintenance aircraft. It can cost $600 an hour to charter aircraft at the lower-end, said Craig Rubenstein, a pilot with the international company, based at Martin in Middle River.

For now, the company, mindful of the high price its customers pay, is holding the line on what it charges even though its fuel cost for its biggest copters has risen $57 per hour of flight time.

"If we charge too much money, people won't pay it," Rubenstein said. "We can only charge what the market will bear."

Helicopter Transport, which owns a fleet of 80 aircraft in the United States and throughout Central and South America, is paying about $2.43 a gallon for jet fuel, an increase from about $2.10, Rubenstein said.

For a $600-an-hour Bell 206B -- which uses about 25 gallons an hour -- that bumps hourly fuel costs up from $53 to $61 an hour, still a relatively small percentage of the cost of flying, he said.

At the high end, hourly fuel costs have jumped from $368 to $425 for the S61 helicopter, which is used for heavy-lift construction work such as logging, one of the growth areas for the company.

However, that's still a small percentage of the $3,000 an hour cost of operating the high-priced aircraft, with maintenance the big expense.

"Does the customer know the difference? No. Did we raise our rates? No," he said. "We absorb the cost for now." But the company is closely watching fluctuations in oil prices.

"It goes up, then goes down," Rubenstein said. "We've been holding steady. But if it continues going up, we would have to raise rates."

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