In a move to save spending money on new helicopters, the Government has decided to privatise the helicopter service that provides search and rescue missions around the coast of the UK.
Presently, the search and rescue (SAR) service is provided by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force from eight bases using Sea King helicopters, with a civilian helicopter service from four bases under contract to the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA).
A major factor behind the Government’s decision to privatise the service was the cost of replacing the ageing Sea King helicopters.
So later this year, the Government hopes to sign a £6bn 25-year Private Finance Initiative contract with a private group, the Soteria Consortium, to operate the SAR service from 2012, using the Sikorsky S-92A as its helicopter. The S-92A is used for SAR with the MCA on Shetland and the Isle of Lewis.
The Soteria Consortium is made up of
- CHC, the largest global supplier of civilian helicopter services and the current provider of the MCA SAR service;
- Thales, a leading Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Department for Transport (DfT) contractor;
- Sikorsky, the S92 manufacturer and a world leader in the design and manufacture of military and commercial helicopters,
- Royal Bank of Scotland, substantially owned by the taxpayer.
In a joint announcement in February, the MOD and the MfT said the consortium was the preferred bidder and would provide a “harmonised search and rescue helicopter service.” Their statement said: “The 24-hour SAR service will be replaced over the next decade through a single contract placed with Soteria that will retain a proportion of military aircrew working alongside civilian aircrew trained to the same high standards. The service will continue to be managed jointly by the MOD and the MCA.”
The Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, Quentin Davies, pledged: “The future service will continue to operate from 12 bases in order to ensure that it provides a fully effective SAR service.”
The announcement was greeted with protests amid concerns that while the Military had 38 helicopters assigned to the SAR mission, this number would be reduced by the new consortium, and that existing SAR bases could be closed or moved to different locations.
The Soteria Consortium has already decided to close the SAR base at Prestwick and replace it with one at Glasgow Airport. It was stated to have been done for commercial reasons.
Within hours of this closure being announced and with the contract not yet signed, a Ministry of Defence spokesman stated that this decision could not be reversed.
More on this and other news in Sea Breezes Magazine - April 2010 Issue
Click here to subscribe