After a false start last year the tiny island of St Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic ocean will finally welcome its first scheduled air links next month when South African carrier Airlink introduces a new weekly flight connecting St Helena to both Johannesburg and the Namibian capital Windhoek. The long-distance flight will be operated using an increased gross weight version of the Embraer E190 seating 76 passengers (six in business class and 70 in Economy); the aircraft will also be used to add a monthly service between St Helena and the island of Ascension.
St Helena is currently widely regarded as the world’s most inaccessible inhabited island. The tropical island 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, it 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 already past its original retirement date.
This was expected to change last year with the completion of a long awaited first airport on St Helena. The construction of the international airport is clearly 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 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.
It is clear the new airport will completely revolutionise not only travel for the residents of St Helena, but will also boost tourism. However, after selecting South African carrier Comair as the preferred bidder for the provision of scheduled air services to St Helena, a series of test flights raised concerns over potential turbulence and windshear on the approach to Runway 20 (from the North) at St Helena International Airport and has resulted in more than a year’s delay in the launch of the first regular air services.
Airlink was selected as the preferred operator to St Helena following a revised tender looking at smaller aircraft and the airline completed a series of tests last month, including multiple take offs and landings to secure ETOPS (Extended Range Twin Engine Operations) rating and the required approvals from authorities to begin flights.
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The airline now confirms it will inaugurate flights from Johannesburg to St Helena from October 14, 2017. After its launch service all future flights will operate via Windhoek and Airlink has applied for fifth freedom rights to enable passengers to embark and disembark in Namibia. It will also provide connecting flights from both Johannesburg and Windhoek to Cape Town. The additional St Helena – Ascension sector will be added from the third weekend in November 2017, but thereafter will revert to the second weekend of every month.
The new air link may be revolutionary for St Helena and will initially complement the existing Royal Mail Ship link which is planned to remain in service through to February 2018. But even following the introduction of Airlink’s flights, air services to the island will remain a very niche market.
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.