Authorities in St Helena are hoping to welcome commercial flights to the island’s new airport within the “next few months” following wind problems. It had originally been hoped commercial operations would commence in May but they were halted after significant windshear was reported by aircraft coming in to land.
National newspapers leapt on the story with many reporting over the weekend that the £250 million facility, funded by the British government, would never open. However, Chris Pickard, the island’s director of tourism, said data was being collected by aircraft that are still landing at the facility which can be used to mitigate the windshear problem.
He said the more that is known about it and can be fed into flight and simulation systems, the more likely commercial operations will resume. However, he added one solution might be to use smaller aircraft with 40 to 50 seats than the originally intended 100 seat aircraft, which could then land further up the runway.
Pickard said: “We are getting all the data in place. That’s going to take a bit of time and nobody is sure how long. At the moment about four or five planes have landed on the island. It is not make or break for the island, we’re hoping to have something ready so we can give the right product for our visitors. I would hope in the next few months (commercial operations will resume).”
The new airport was set to completely revolutionise not only travel for the residents of St Helena, but also boost tourism. Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, more than 2,000 kilometres from the nearest major landmass, the island's only link to the world has been by RMS St Helena which sails between the island and Cape Town, a five day adventure across, at times, rough seas, but which was due to retire from service in July.
Pickard noted that the ship had originally been scheduled to make its last run to the island this month before its retirement from service. However, a further three sailings into September have now been added to its itinerary. Pickard believes this gives some indication as to when the authorities hope to resume flights to the island.
A recent series of test flights from African carrier Comair raised concerns over potential turbulence and windshear on the approach to Runway 20 (from the North) at the new St Helena International Airport. This initial arrival was an implementation service aimed at ensuring readiness for the commencement of scheduled weekly air services to/from Johannesburg, 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 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.
If they get up and running, air links to St Helena will remain 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.