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A recent series of test flights from African carrier Comair has raised concerns over potential turbulence and windshear on the approach to Runway 20 (from the North) at the new St Helena International Airport and will delay its opening and the launch of the first air services to the small island in the middle of the South Atlantic ocean.
The test flights from Comair were launched with a fanfare last month as the first passenger arrived on one of the remotest islands in the world. The airline’s Boeing 737-800 touched down on the brand new landing strip on April 18, 2016 in preparation for the inauguration of a daily scheduled flight from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg from the end of this month when the airport was due to be officially opened.
This initial arrival was an implementation service aimed at ensuring readiness for the commencement of the scheduled air services, and included route assessments and checks on airside operations, passenger and cargo handling, training etc ahead of the full commercial certification of the airport.
However, the St Helena Government has confirmed that as a result of these tests “further safety and operational work” is required prior to the official opening of the Island’s new airport. “While this means that the Airport will not officially open on May 21, 2016 as originally planned, the safety of aircraft and passengers is of course paramount,” it said in a statement.
It has been revealed that one key outcome of the Implementation Flight has been the gathering of additional data on turbulence and windshear on the approach to Runway 20 (from the North). “As a result of the data gathered and the conditions experienced, it has been decided that there is some additional work to be done in order to ensure the safe operation of scheduled passenger flights to and from St Helena Airport,” said the St Helena Government.
All parties are now understood to be working hard to get a better understanding of how windshear conditions can be mitigated at St Helena Airport - assessing what measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of incoming aircraft landing on Runway 20.
Windshear refers to a change in wind speed or direction, including a rapid change over a short distance and while difficult wind conditions, including turbulence and windshear, are encountered managed at many airports around the world, they are generally safely managed through operational procedures.
“Everyone involved remains committed to commencing commercial flights to and from St Helena at the earliest possible opportunity,” said a representative of the St Helena Government. “The Official Opening of St Helena Airport will now take place at a later date which has yet to be determined.”
The new airport will completely revolutionise not only travel for the residents of St Helena, but will boost tourism. 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, but which is due to retire from service in July.
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.