Saint Helena airport – expensive mistake?

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Saint Helena is a remote Atlantic volcanic Island, nearly 2000 Km from mainland Africa. Saint Helena is a British overseas territory having a population is 4255, according to a census eight years ago.

The location of Saint Helena

Still today, the only transport connection to the outside world is by the ship RMS Saint Helena from Cape town, departing twice a month. The trip takes five days. RMS Saint Helena is set to be retired by the end of the year.

In contrast, a flight would take only about 3-4 hours. After years of planning, the airport construction commenced in 2012 and the airport was completed this year. Building an airport at this island was not an easy task. The island is highly rugged, and there is very limited space for a runway.

But only after the first test flights by commercial airlines it emerged wind conditions there are very difficult, even dangerous. Plans to start commercial traffic to the airport had to be put on hold. Now they have an airport, that cost £285 million, but no traffic there!

Comair, a South African British Airways affiliate was to serve the island weekly from Johannesburg using Boeing 737-800 aircraft. However, after a test flight to the island, where they managed to land only on their third attempt, the airline had to cancel the service, at least for now. A video of the landing:

Comair’s earlier decision to fly from Johannesburg instead of Cape Town has raised much discontent among Saint Helena residents. They have strong commercial and social links to Cape Town, where RMS Saint Helena goes to. Also in terms of tourism it would make more sense to fly from Cape Town, which is, unlike Johannesburg, a major tourist destination. Johannesburg has better flight connections, but Cape Town has sufficient connections to Europe, from where most tourist would come. When it comes to much better African regional connections from Johannesburg, demand between these destinations and Saint Helena will be nonexistent.

Another airline to serve Saint Helena airport was to be charter airline Atlantic Star Airlines flying from London. They were also planning to use Boeing 737 (with a fuel stop in Banjul, Gambia). It is now unclear if or when they will commence the service.

Saint Helena Airport. The photo is taken from Saint Helena government website.

So as of now, options are few. One is to serve the airport by smaller planes, though there are not many such aircraft that can fly to the island and back. Planes won’t be able to refuel at Saint Helena, and secondly it needs enough fuel to reach an alternate airport in the case it cannot land at Saint Helena. The nearest other airport is on Ascension Island, 1300 km away, but a better option would be one in continental Africa.

Another option is to modify the airport, by extending the runway, or even building a new one. In any case it will be a very expensive operation, without a guarantee it would significantly improve the situation.

The least likeable option is to abandon the airport and continue to serve it by a ship. More likely a better solution will be found, and the island can start enjoying better connections to outside world. For tourism to develop at the island, a flight link will be a necessity.

Further reading

The Guardian, June 9, 2016: St Helena airport costing £285m of UK money is delayed over safety concerns

Conservative Home, June 2, 2016: Lord Ashcroft: Special investigation: A dangerous problem with St Helena’s new airport leaves the islanders in despair


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