It may currently be widely regarded as the world's most inaccessible inhabited island, but all this will change in February 2016 with the opening of the first airport on St Helena. The tropical island in the South Atlantic Ocean is Britain's second oldest remaining of the British Overseas Territories, after Bermuda, but accessibility has been limited to an almost week long sea journey.
Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, more than 2,000 kilometres from the nearest major landmass, Saint Helena is one of the most remote places in the world. The nearest port on the continent is Namibe in Southern Angola, and the nearest international airport the Quatro de Fevereiro Airport of Angola's capital Luanda. It is currently linked to the world by RMS St Helena which sails between the island and Cape Town, a five day adventure across, at times, rough seas.
The construction of an international airport is a major development for the island. Long rumoured and discussed, the British Government finally announced its plan to construct the facility in March 2005 for completion in 2010. However, the financial crisis and delays with consultations meant that it was not until November 2011 that an agreement was reached with a South African contractor to build the international lifeline.
The Design, Build and Operate (DBO) contract with Basil Read Ltd is valued at £201.5 million for the design and construction of the airport, and an additional amount of up to £10 million on shared risk contingency and £35.1 million for ten years of operation.
The project aims to provide air services to St Helena, fulfilling the UK Government’s commitment to maintaining access to the island, and at the same time providing St Helena with a real opportunity for economic growth through tourism. Both the St Helena Government and the UK Government believe this will lead to eventual financial self-sustainability for St Helena.
The project is now at an advanced stage with the terminal building, apron, taxiway and Runway due for completion by the end of June this year for flight trials to commence from July 2015. In preparation of the opening of the airport, St Helena Government last June released a tender for the future provision of regular air services as the Government subsidy of sea access using the RMS St Helena will cease as soon as the airport opens
Following this process the St Helena Government has this month announced the appointment of South African carrier Comair as the preferred bidder for the provision of air services to St Helena. The company operates under its low-fare airline brand, kulula.com, as well as under the British Airways livery as part of its license agreement with British Airways.
Comair is proposing a weekly flight between Johannesburg OR Tambo International Airport and St Helena using a Boeing 737-800 aircraft. The flight time from Johannesburg to St Helena will be about four and a half hours. Through Comair’s partnerships with numerous international airlines, the St Helena air service will offer connections to the international route network, via Johannesburg, to destinations such as London, Amsterdam, Paris, Sydney and Hong Kong.
“This marks a very positive step for St Helena in working with an airline that has such a long track record of successful operations and which provides an excellent gateway to the rest of the world, including the UK,” said the St Helena Government in a statement.
It will now hold detailed discussions with Comair over the next few weeks and will make a formal and more detailed announcement about the introduction of scheduled flights to the island once these have been concluded.
The terms of the qualification tender had called for interested airlines to commit to an up to five year contract with St Helena and offer a minimum of a weekly service, throughout the year to a recognised international hub airport and providing connectivity to regional and intercontinental services from that airport.
Air links to St Helena will be a very niche market and a study by The Journey Tourism and Enterprise St Helena, a body set up by the St Helena Government to drive forward tourism and economic development, for the air service tender suggests that through organic growth visitor numbers to the island should rise from around 1,400 to 2,000 a year between 2016 and 2020. However, a medium growth scenario and the development of a single 45 bedroom hotel on the island could see visitor numbers grow as high as 7,700 by 2020.