The St. Helena airport was supposed to boost the isolated island's economy, but has proved to be a massive failure. PAUL TYSON
It’s harrowing to watch: In a video of what looks like a clear day, a Boeing 737-800 wobbles visibly, its metal wings flapping like a bird’s, before it flies past the runway, where the pilot has clearly determined it isn’t safe to land.The video was made last April, weeks before the official opening of the airport on the British territory of St. Helena, a volcanic island more than 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa. The clip shows a test flight by South African carrier Comair. Because of heavy wind on the island, the pilot made two hairy attempts at touching down before he landed the plane.The jetliner might not have crashed that day, but the hopes and dreams of the cutoff islanders sure did. The blustery weather resulted in the suspension of a multimillion-dollar plan to bring commercial flights to St. Helena. The British government is paying for the construction of a £285.5 million ($365 million) airport in an attempt to bring an end to the island’s centuries of isolation.
For years, the only way to get there had been to buy a ticket on a slow and expensive British mail ship, the RMS St. Helena , which departs from Cape Town, South Africa, roughly once a month and takes nearly six days. In 2002, islanders voted in a referendum in favor of building an international airport, which the British government hoped would bring enough tourist dollars to wean the island off of British financial support.
Construction began in 2011, and it seemed like an easy sell: Adventurous tourists would grab the chance to visit what has long been one of the world’s most isolated and mysterious places—the verdant, mountainous island where Napoleon Bonaparte lived out his exile.
The windy airport realization last year came as a blow to residents in St. Helena—and to lawmakers in London who were furious over how taxpayers’ money had been spent. In 1839’s The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin noted the heaviness of the winds during his visit to St. Helena, British parliamentarian Stephen Phillips told Mark Lowcock, head of the Department for International Development , in a November 2 committee hearing last year. How, he asked Lowcock, did 21st-century British planners fail to do the same? A December report from the House of Commons’s Public Accounts Committee lambasted the department for neglecting to take into account the island’s weather patterns, despite concerns over turbulence raised in a 2005 feasibility study of the airport, and for conducting only one test flight with a propeller aircraft.
Since then, the British government has launched an inquiry into what went wrong, and an independent panel has convened in London to discuss how the airport might still be used. Comair’s contract with the St. Helena government to provide weekly service to the island from Johannesburg is on hold while the U.K. and St. Helena governments evaluate whether the 737-800 would ever be able to land safely.
In the meantime, smaller, lighter aircraft present a plausible alternative. As of early April, 32 private planes, carrying mostly business passengers, and medevac flights had managed to land at the airport. Most of them landed in the opposite direction on the runway from the direction the 737-800 had taken, an approach that is less turbulent but can be attempted only by lighter aircraft that likely carry fewer passengers than the hundred or so expected to be on the 737-800 flights. In December, the St. Helena government issued a new tender for an air service provider with planes capable of landing in the new direction.
Though it is likely that there won’t be as many tourists as would have arrived on the larger aircraft, there is hope yet for businesses in St. Helena. “There’s nothing to say that this problem can’t be overcome,” says Richard Brown, a pilot and owner of Atlantic Star Airlines, a British company that has put in a bid for the new air service tender. His proposal is to base two planes on the island, carrying up to 60 passengers on twice weekly round-trip flights from St. Helena to Accra, Ghana, where people can connect to Europe and the U.S. That’s as many as 6,240 passengers a year, more than the 4,000 tourists who visited St. Helena in 2015-2016 but far fewer than the British government’s 2010 projections that the new airport would bring nearly 30,000 tourists annually by 2042, who would spend £66 million ($84 million) between 2011 and 2055.
Based on those projections, business owners on the island had made plans and spent money to expand before the airport was to open last May. “We had high hopes the airport would have been a boost to our business,” Colin Yon, who runs a bed-and-breakfast on the island, says in an email. “We are surviving, but just.”
But others say the mood among the islanders is starting to lift. “In May last year, when it was all canceled, people were despondent,” says Lyn Thomas, co-owner of Rose and Crown Limited, a family business awarded the contract to run the airport concessions, which it has done when small planes have landed. But she says the prospect of a new plan for the airport—involving the smaller planes landing in the opposite direction—has raised spirits: “I think people are hopeful now that things are being done.”
While the debacle stretches on, the scrutiny over the past year hasn’t been all bad for St. Helena, says Christopher Pickard, St. Helena’s tourism director, who moved to the island in 2015. He says it may take a while for nervous flyers to sign up for the trip after Googling that rocky Comair landing. But at least more people know where St. Helena is. “Now, people say, ‘Haven’t you got that windy airport?’”