Italian defence firm Leonardo partners with Falcon Aviation on VIP helicopter terminal

Exclusive: Terminal in Dubai will have dedicated facility for Expo 2020 visitors’ helicopter transfer, CEO says

Italian defence and aerospace giant Leonardo is partnering with Abu Dhabi's Falcon Aviation Services to develop a new helicopter terminal as the company remains bullish on business in the Middle East, its chief executive said.

The VIP terminal will be based in Dubai to support Falcon Aviation helicopter transfer services to the Expo 2020 site, using the AW169 helicopters manufactured by Leonardo, Alessandro Profumo, Leonardo's chief executive, told The National in an exclusive interview before the Dubai Airshow on Sunday.

"It features private, airport-like comfort and ease of transport, and is an important investment in modern passenger transport services and mobility, with a dedicated facility that will support Expo 2020's visitors’ helicopter transfer," he said. "In the UAE we have very good demand on the civil side with our helicopter business."

Leonardo has also signed an agreement with Abu Dhabi Aviation Training Centre to house the AW169 and AW139 pilot training simulators in a deal facilitated by Tawazun Economic Council, the body tasked with developing a homegrown defence industry.

Leonardo expects to boost its annual Middle East sales beyond $1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) as it pursues deals for its naval combat systems, cybersecurity and helicopters amid plans to buoy overall global revenue. Its Middle East business accounts for up to 10 per cent of its total order book.

The firm last week said it invested in Skydweller Aero, a start-up that is developing solar-powered drones capable of unlimited flight without refuelling.

While the company has not yet held talks with Middle East customers on the new venture, it sees potential uses for the technology in the region where sunlight is in abundant supply and governments are increasingly investing in renewable sources of energy.

"It's a region where solar power will be incredibly important and this is a piece of tech that could be relevant in terms of future application and can be relevant in many sectors," Mr Profumo said. "We’re very interested in having co-operation with local companies."

Autonomous flights of the drone are projected for 2020 and the first production model of the unmanned version of the aircraft is expected in 2021.

Leonardo is bullish on business opportunities in the Middle East despite headwinds that have weighed on regional and global economies.

"In spite of the economic slowdown, the region is experiencing an increased need for security and defence, offering opportunities to companies with a wide but focused portfolio of technologies such as Leonardo's," Mr Profumo said. "This spans from cyber security, to counter drone systems, critical infrastructures security, land and blue border control to air defence.”

Defence companies will be gauging demand for security and early warning systems at the air show, pushing to secure order commitments after the region witnessed a number of attacks over the summer amid escalated tensions.

Leonardo also sees opportunities for its Air Traffic Control (ATM) and Unmanned aerial systems Traffic Control (UTC) as the region focuses on urban mobility innovation and copes with an overcrowded commercial airspace.

"We are already in talks with UAE companies for business opportunities, and we hope to be able to disclose some exciting news next week at the Dubai Airshow," the executive said.

The company sees potential for a deepened relationship and more synergies after the creation of UAE defence conglomerate Edge, which includes some of its existing partners such as Abu Dhabi Ship Building, he said.

The firm will be showcasing a range of its products at the Dubai Airshow including the AgustaWestland AW169 helicopter, training aircraft M-346 and M-345, and its latest drone Falco Xplorer.

In the UAE, Leonardo already has partnerships in the helicopter maintenance, shipbuilding and security fields. It supplies the SF-260 and MB-339 advanced training aircraft for the UAE Air Force. The UAE Navy also uses Leonardo's naval defence and combat management systems.

At a global level, the company is unlikely to see much impact from a potential hard Brexit, despite its significant defence business ties to the UK.

"Leonardo has run extensive evaluations of potential impacts of Brexit on its activities and we do not expect a material impact on the business in the short-term," Mr Profumo said. "We believe that the UK will continue to be an integral element of European defence industrial system."

Italy has agreed to join Britain for work on its planned Tempest fighter plane programme. The Tempest has raised questions about the future of European defence co-operation as France and Germany pursue their own air combat programme.

Asked about the feasibility of two fighter jet programmes in Europe, Mr Profumo said: "We still believe that, for Europe, it would be more efficient and more sustainable at an economic, industrial and commercial level, if in the end, the two programmes would converge."

Leonardo is not currently pursuing specific acquisitions, but is open to evaluating opportunities, and is focusing on pursuing a financial strategy aimed at regaining investment grade from major credit rating agencies, he said.