A multi-million pound airport on the South Atlantic island of St Helena could soon have its first scheduled service – after safety concerns meant the UK taxpayer funded project nearly failed to get off the ground.
The airport, built with £285 million in funding from the Department for International Development (Dfid), had been due to open last year as part of a long-term plan to end St Helena’s dependency on UK Government subsidies.
However the St Helena government announced more than 12 months ago it was being postponed indefinitely amid concerns that the local wind conditions on the South Atlantic meant it was too dangerous for commercial airliners to land.
A damning report into the project said it was “staggering” ministers and civil servants did not foresee the problem.
But the St Helenian government has announced an agreement with airline SA Airlink to start a service running from Johannesburg, a stopover at Windhoek in Namibia and on to St Helena.
It has been reported a “proving” flight – required by the South African Civil Aviation Authority – will take place on August 21.
It is envisaged the weekly Saturday service will be operated using an Embraer E190-100IGW aircraft with the flight time from Johannesburg to St Helena being approximately six and a quarter hours including a half hour stop in Windhoek.
Governor of St Helena Lisa Phillips said: “Undoubtedly, 2017 is the year of positive change for St Helena. Very soon a trip to South Africa, for St Helenians, will take a matter of hours rather than days.
“And we will be able to welcome tourists here in larger numbers and improve the economy of the Island and offer a better life for those who live here.”
Airlink’s chief executive officer Rodger Foster said: “Airlink is confident that our Embraer E190 is most suited to the demanding environmental conditions prevalent at St Helena and that we will establish a safe and reliable air bridge between St Helena and South Africa.”
The airport was meant to start operating in May 2016 but test flights a month before revealed the problems with “wind shear”.
The problem of wind shear on St Helena was noted by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle in 1836 and MPs challenged DfID about why it had commissioned an airport paid for by the British taxpayer, without properly appreciating the danger of this effect.
Officials told the MPs that it had commissioned a feasibility study from engineering consultancy Atkins for the airport build and acted upon its recommendations, as well as taking advice from the Met Office and aviation regulators.