by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, October 13, 2017
St Helena’s £285m airport, dubbed the “world’s most useless” after a series of setbacks, will finally welcome its first scheduled service on Saturday.
An SA Airlink flight from Johannesburg, with up to 68 passengers on board, is expected to touch down on the tiny Atlantic island at 115pm local time following an historic seven-hour flight (including a refuelling stop in Windhoek, Namibia).
The first flight for the weekly service - running each Saturday - will mark a new chapter in the history of the British Overseas Territory, which sits more than 1,200 miles from the nearest major landmass and is usually accessed via a five-night ocean crossing on the RMS St Helena, one of the last working Royal Mail ships in the world. It should, both islanders and UK authorities will be hoping, represent the final chapter in the meandering saga of St Helena Airport, which has involved a decade of delays, overspending of taxpayer cash and accusations of incompetence.
The British government first announced plans to build an airport on St Helena in 2005, but problems finding a suitable construction firm and financial pressures brought on by the global recession meant contracts were not signed until 2011.
The airport officially opened in June 2016, but with a major proviso: large jets cannot land there due to dangerous winds. On April 18, 2016, a test flight operated by Comair for British Airways saw a Boeing 737-800 need three attempts to make a successful landing, and for more than a year only small private planes were cleared to use it.
An official report late last year said it was “staggering” that the impact of difficult weather conditions was not foreseen and described the airport - labelled by some “the world’s most useless” - as “a £285m white elephant [that] serves neither its people nor the taxpayers footing the bill”. That figure works out at nearly £63,000 for each of territory’s 4,534 residents.
A first commercial flight, operated by SA Airlink using an Avro RJ86, and with 60 paying passengers on board, landed last May. But that flight - which was delayed by an hour - was only run because two RMS St Helena voyages were cancelled so the ship could undergo repairs.
The opening of the airport was originally supposed to see the Royal Mail ship retired (it will now stop plying the route in February), and authorities in 2015 ambitiously estimated that up to 30,000 people a year could visit St Helena once air links were established.
However, SA Airlink’s weekly service will only be amount to around 4,000 passengers a year on each leg - and that’s if the flights are full. Today, Telegraph Travel was still able to find tickets for the inaugural service on ebookers.com, with one-way fares from £395.
A passenger limit of 68 has been put in place to ensure its aircraft are light enough to take off and land, and pilots have been instructed to avoid a stretch of runway where dangerous winds are most common.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Development said: "Since her appointment, the Secretary of State has taken concrete steps to get the airport up and running. This is an important moment in St Helena’s route to self-sufficiency. It will boost its tourism industry, creating the opportunity to increase its revenues, and will bring other benefits such as quicker access to healthcare for those living on the island."
Is St Helena worth visiting?
St Helena suits lovers of unspoiled wilderness, nature and wildlife, walkers and, as the location of Napoleon’s imprisonment after the Battle of Waterloo, history buffs.
The climate is mild for much of the year, with temperatures hovering between 20C and 27C, and while English is the main language, the island’s cuisine has Malay and Chinese influences.
Gavin Bell visited back in 2011, on one of the RMS Saint Helena’s final sailings from Britain, and described his experiences for Telegraph Travel.
“While St Helena, with its historic buildings and friendly population, is well worth a visit, a voyage on the RMS is an experience in itself,” he said, going on to describe an officers' performance of The Pirates of Penzance. “Designed to carry cargo and 128 passengers in comfort and style, she is a rare vessel,” he added. “The only other like her sails from Tahiti to remote French Polynesian islands. The Queen Mary 2 is the only other ship bearing the Royal Mail title.
“The two RMS ships could not be less alike. There are no dancing girls on the Saint Helena (unless you count deckhands in pantomime drag), no big bands and no late-night casino. Entertainment is of the homegrown variety, from pub quizzes to deck quoits and cricket matches on the sun deck.
"But there is a sense of adventure that no big cruise liner can match, as she ploughs her way towards the lonely isle that was Napoleon's last place of exile. When I sailed on her, the passengers included the widow of an island bishop returning to see a church built in her husband's honour, and a South African eye surgeon with a ponytail who had been called to perform operations. There was also a retired pilot from Sussex keen to trace his ancestors, notably the fourth governor of the island, who was expelled by a Dutch invasion in 1672.”
Just 10 miles long and with a population of 4,255 at the 2008 census, St Helena is the second oldest remaining British Overseas Territory after Bermuda. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and was colonised by Britain in 1658 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.
Napoleon died there in 1821, after six years in exile. His last residence, Longwood House, is now a museum.
What of the RMS St Helena?
After 27 years in service, the Royal Mail Ship St Helena, one of only four passenger ships in the world to carry the RMS prefix, will cease operations in February.
That means just four more departures. Its final voyage to both St Helena and Ascension Island departs Cape Town on January 24, 2018. The ship will arrive in St Helena on February 18. Fares start from £429, rising to £2,069 for superior accommodation.