Choppers Over the South China Sea

Sky Shuttle Helicopters serve the Hong Kong-Macau market

By: By Norman Sklarewitz

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Scheduled commercial helicopter services have been tried in many markets around the world, but few have succeeded. One major exception is found in Hong Kong.


Sky Shuttle currently operates a fleet of five helicopters. // © 2009 Sky Shuttle Helicopters

Operating out of a smartly designed, three-story terminal complex within the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal Building, Sky Shuttle Helicopters Ltd. operates what it calls cross-boundary services to Macau, a former Portuguese territory that is now, like Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China. It also offers service from Macau to the city of Shenzhen, China. Shenzhen is a major city in the Special Economic Zone (SPZ) just over the border from Hong Kong. The SPZ is home for major manufacturing and other commercial enterprises.

Between Hong Kong and Macau, Sky Shuttle operates 27 roundtrips per day and another 10 between Macau and Shenzhen.

Services are provided by the company’s newly acquired fleet of five medium twin-engine AgustaWestland AW 139s with a sixth 12-passenger aircraft scheduled for delivery in October. As business demands, the additional aircraft will permit the company to add five more frequencies a day on the Hong Kong-Macau run, according to Alfred Li, commercial director.

Last year, in conjunction with the acquisition of the new AW 139 fleet, the company adopted its new name and logo as part of a rebranding program.

Currently, during peak periods, there’s a departure every 30 minutes, but as demand warrants, the frequencies could come as quickly as every 20 minutes. For long periods during public holidays, the company adds an additional six roundtrips each way between Hong Kong and Macau.

The additional aircraft will also permit Sky Shuttle to launch charter flights to the city of Guangzhou, China, for example, which is the capital of Guangdong Province and a major commercial and industry center in the sprawling Pearl River Delta of south China. According to Li, the company is “exploring” the possibility of charter flights for the route, which would involve an approximate 50-minute flight from Macau.

At its Hong Kong base, Sky Shuttle’s rooftop helipad has two landing positions. On the level below is a comfortable departure lounge in which waiting passengers may partake of Chinese fare, such as dim sum, dumplings, tea, coffee or soft drinks. Free Wi-Fi access is also provided.

In Macau, a similar but different style setting for the lounge is maintained in the Ferry Building. Departing passengers pass through normal security and clear immigration and then proceed to the lounge before boarding. Passengers arriving in Macau have the advantage of using a special access channel.

Currently, Sky Shuttle has some 250 employees of whom 31 are pilots representing a variety of nationalities.

While Sky Shuttle currently has no formal affiliation with travel agents, Li said that the company is hoping to work more closely with the U.S. agent community in the future. Agents will be paid commissions or, if they wish, they can acquire tickets at a net price.

While traffic for the helicopter company has been down during the global economic downturn for much of 2009, Li noted that, moving into the third quarter, business picked up. Further improvement is predicted for the months ahead, too. On Saturdays, which is the busiest day of the week for the carrier, flights operate mostly or entirely full.

Fare for the 36-mile hop over the South China Sea between Hong Kong and Macau is about $300 one way and, between Macau and Shenzhen, it’s $244 one way. Operations at Shenzhen are carried out on the tarmac at Baoan International Airport.

Given the relatively steep fare structure for the short runs, it’s not surprising that many of the passengers flown by Sky Shuttle are senior business executives, diplomats, celebrities, high-ranking government officials and, increasingly, high rollers headed for Macau’s booming casinos. Tickets for such casino VIPs are provided, of course, by the hosting properties.

Gaming is Macau’s number-one market and, essentially, its sole industry these days. Thanks to a new law enacted by the Chinese government in 2002, foreign entities are free to invest in Macau. As a result, virtually every name familiar to the Las Vegas gaming industry is now well established in the region. These companies include the Sands, the Venetian, MGM/Mirage, Hard Rock, Wynn, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Sofitel and Mandarin Oriental, with more on the drawing boards.

These properties are now looking to Sky Shuttle to lay on charters to move their celebrity clientele and other VIPs directly from Macau to the Hong Kong International Airport to catch their onward flights.

Sky Shuttle maintains its own Flight Operations Control Center at its Hong Kong base. It also has its own maintenance base on Coloane Island, one of two islands that, with the peninsula extending out from Mainland China, make up the city-state of Macau. Maintenance and repair work is contracted out to AirTech, which employs 30 licensed engineers and mechanics from around the world to provide the highest standard of professional aircraft maintenance.