Government seeks new operator for €800m search and rescue helicopter service

Government seeks new operator for €800m search and rescue helicopter service

The current 10-year contract for the Coast Guard's search and rescue helicopter service elapses next year. File Picture: Andy Gibson

A new €800m competitive tender for the Coast Guard search and rescue (SAR) helicopter service has been published by the Government.

The contract will see an operator for the search and rescue service appointed by the Department of Transport for a period of 10 years, with the option to extend for a further three.

The current 10-year contract dating from 2012 at a value of €600m is operated by Canadian firm CHC (Canadian Holding Company) via its Irish subsidiary, CHC Ireland. The new contract is worth an additional €20m per year.

Ireland’s five Coast Guard helicopters fly in the region of 700 missions per year, at a cost of roughly €90,000 per flight.

Much scrutiny has been placed on the service in recent times due to the fact the State does not own, but leases the Sikorsky S-92 helicopters which are used to perform the service.

CHC criticised after Rescue 116 crash

CHC itself meanwhile received criticism in the recent final report into the tragic crash of the Dublin-based Rescue 116 helicopter off the coast of Mayo in March 2017, which concluded that the company’s mapping systems for its Irish routes did not have controlled testing in place for its flight management systems.

It is as yet unclear whether CHC will bid for the renewed contract. A final decision is due to be made on the tender by March 2022. CHC had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Previous controversy over consultancy

A deal of controversy had previously emerged via the State’s recruitment of KPMG in October 2020 to construct a business case for the new SAR contract.

The firm used by KPMG, English aerospace consultancy Frazer-Nash, was itself a subsidiary of private search and rescue operator Babcock International — a potential bidder for the new SAR contract — until October of this year, when it was acquired by Houston-based engineering giant KBR.

The State’s decision to go to private tender for the new contract was delivered before the Oireachtas broke for the summer last July, leading to accusations of a potential conflict of interest on the part of Frazer-Nash.

The report compiled by the company had effectively ruled out the Irish Air Corps from any involvement in the new contract. The Air Corps had offered its services to perform some of the Coast Guard’s missions from Baldonnel Aerodrome in Dublin.

'Perceived conflicts of interest addressed'

The Department of Transport informed the PAC earlier in December that it is “satisfied that perceived conflicts of interest have been addressed”.

The Department said that Frazer-Nash had told it that, since itself and Babcock had “no shared IT system… and our offices are geographically separate… there is no opportunity for any accidental release of information". 

Vice chair of PAC and Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy asked if the business case had “seriously considered direct State involvement”.

“We’re a small country,” she said. “What level of competition is there going to be in this thing to start with?”

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