Flights at St Helena Airport put on hold

The British Overseas Territory of St. Helena is one of the most remote islands in the world, situated in the South Atlantic Ocean about 1,210 miles west of the coast of Africa. It's so remote that it’s where the British exiled deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.

For modern travellers, getting to the island requires sailing for more than five days on the RMS St. Helena, a combination passenger and mail ship that periodically departs from Cape Town, South Africa.  Even the St. Helena tourism authority suggests on its website that "getting to St Helena is part of the attraction; it is an adventure all in itself!"

The island's connectivity to the rest of the world was supposed to change with the construction of a shiny new £285 million ($406 million) airport. The St. Helena Airport is now finished, but the launch of commercial airline service there has run into some headwinds -- almost literally.

Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) paid nine figures for the construction of an airport on St. Helena, where officials hoped commercial service would begin in May. But in April, the government of St. Helena deemed the airport unsafe for regular passenger airline flights because of the high winds, according to the BBC.

Amyas Morse, the head of the United Kingdom’s National Audit Office, said:

“Estimating the likely costs and benefits of a project such as this is an inherently difficult task, particularly with a limited number of precedents for building an airport in a remote location.” 

The DFID had agreed to pay for the construction of the airport in order to help St. Helena become “financially self-sufficient,” in part by developing its tourism industry. The island is currently funded by government subsidies. The Telegraph of London reports that DFID paid £28 million ($39.8 million) in 2015-2016 to keep St. Helena afloat, so to speak.

DFID and the government of St. Helena said they are working together to find a solution to the wind issue, but -- for now -- the airport’s opening has been postponed.

For its part, the St. Helena government issued a Friday statement pushing back against media coverage of the delay.

“Press reports in the UK  and elsewhere that describe St Helena Airport as being ‘scrapped’, ‘mothballed’ or ‘postponed indefinitely’ are incorrect," the government's statement says. "The situation remains as in our last update. This is that there are wind shear challenges on one runway (20, the northern approach) which means larger planes (eg. 737-800) cannot currently land safely. We are collecting wind data which will allow larger planes to land on this runway, but this will take some time."

"Wind shear is a factor at several airports around the world, including London City Airport, where safe landings happen every day," St. Helena continued in the statement. "In the meantime, we are working hard to identify an interim flight solution that can land on our second runway (02, from the south). There is no wind shear on this second runway, but there is a tailwind. We have identified aircraft types which can land in these conditions, and airlines that have such planes – and we are now exploring the specific availability of aircraft with these airlines."

The government says the airport is technically open. Still, there's been no date targeted for the launch of regular service to the airport.

In the meantime, the RMS St. Helena was scheduled to end its service to the island in June after the airport opened. Now, the ship will continue to provide the only regular transportation to and from the 10-mile long island until a solution for the airport can be worked out.

“[St. Helena Government] will therefore honor its commitment to maintain access by extending the service of the RMS as an interim measure and for a limited period until air services begin,” the government said in a statement.

St. Helena has been ruggedly remote and sparsely inhabited since its discovery in 1502 – so what’s another month or two?

Source: USA Today