WHICH AIRLINE FOR ST HELENA? | Darrin Henry
The clock is ticking; the deadline for bids to provide an air service to St Helena closed two days ago on Monday (6 February) which means in less than three months the island should know the identity of the successful airline(s) – if indeed that information is made public.
Selection of the preferred bidder is due on 28 April, 2017.
The nitty gritty of the operational details will then be negotiated and agreed before a signed contract is due by 31 May, 2017.
This is good news for an island that has been in limbo for nearly a year now, ever since wind shear wobbled a British Airways 737-800 implementation flight in April, 2016 causing the grand opening of the newly constructed airport to be postponed and the cancellation of a royal visit.
The news made headlines across the world. Reacting to this adverse publicity the powers-that-be decided minimal information sharing was the way to avoid further negative headlines as work began to solve the wind shear problem.
Even Legislative Council members on St Helena were banned from sharing airport news with the public. As a result everyone connected with St Helena, both on island and around the world, is desperate for news of what’s going on with the airport.
So this tender process is not just good news – it’s great news. After a long period of uncertainty people finally have clear targets to focus on once more and tentative planning can begin again.
The big question, and our first point of eight is:
1 – Who Is Bidding To Operate Air Services For St Helena?
Which airline will provide the island’s first ever commercial service? Well this is what we know for sure.
Atlantic Star Airlines, led by CEO, Richard Brown, has confirmed they submitted a bid.
Marketing and Sales for SA Airlink, based in South Africa, have also confirmed to us that they submitted a bid.
Comair in South Africa, the original selected airline pre-wind shear, are not bidding for this new tender. Stuart Cochrane, Executive Manager Business Processes for Comair has confirmed the company are not tendering a bid but also told us the “original contract remains in place.”
It would appear there are at least two definite bids on the table. St Helena Government (SHG) have said it “has been encouraged by the response” to the tender process, which suggests there might be more. However, they are not confirming names or numbers or anything else until the process has been completed.
While we wait there are still some interesting points about the bids to think about. Most of this comes directly from SHG’s, “Information Memorandum – Request for Proposal” document, which is what potential airlines would have relied on to prepare their bids.
2 – How Many Flights To St Helena Per Week
The ‘Request For Proposal’ document asked for:
A minimum single weekly frequency from an airport capable of offering non-stop service beyond to the key markets of the UK and South Africa.
A maximum of a single technical stop between St Helena and the selected gateway, in each direction.
I understand a ‘technical stop’ to mean a ‘refuelling stop.’ Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, I’m sure.
3 – How Many Passengers For St Helena
This one is quite interesting. Operators who bid for the contract have been given guidelines for the number of passengers they might be expected to carry.
5,000 annual return passengers per year for year 1, growing by 10% in year 2 (or 5,500 in year 2).
This works out at 96 passengers per week.
As it happens, during my interview with Embraer Test Pilot, Joel Faermann, in December, it was revealed the Embraer E190 can carry 96 passengers. Could this mean the tender is aimed at the Embraer aircraft? Hmmm. Mind you, perhaps that’s a standard seating capacity, I don’t know!
The ‘Request For Proposal’ also suggests, A split of passenger demand (to permit comparisons between Bidder submissions) of 70% having a final origin or destination in the UK and 30% in South Africa.
This translates to approximately 67 of the 96 weekly passengers coming from the UK. All best-guess figures, of course.
4 – What About Flights To Ascension Island
Saints working on Ascension Island and the Falklands have been as anxious to learn about their future travel arrangements as much as anyone. The tender submissions have been asked to consider:
The minimum service required between Ascension Island and St Helena to replace the passenger elements of the existing RMS service is a base frequency of a monthly flight (12 per annum).
Passenger expectations from Wideawake Airfield on Ascension (which would include those linking to/from the Falklands) is: 600 round trip passengers per year, with no growth factor to be applied.
Those numbers break down to just 50 round trip passengers per month.
Other details about Ascension Island given in the Request For Proposals include:
Military requirements will always take priority over civil aircraft movements.
In terms of scheduled services to Ascension Island, the MOD South Atlantic Airbridge currently provides two return flights per week between the UK and the Falkland Islands via Ascension. Currently a standard allocation of 15 seats, increased to 25 seats for a RMS connecting flight, are reserved for passengers travelling to/from Ascension on the UK/Ascension and Ascension/UK legs of each Airbridge flight. Passengers connecting to St Helena make use of these allocations. Discussions are underway with the UK Ministry of Defence to explore the option of increasing seat availability on the Airbridge.
5 – Length of Contract
SHG is seeking through this procurement process to award an air service contract with a suitably capable organisation to provide air services for a period to be agreed, but with the expectation of a minimum contract duration of three years.
This three year expectation from bidders is also interesting, especially considering Comair have said the, “original contract remains in place.”
In response to WTSDN enquiries, last week a spokesperson from SHG gave this statement:
“The agreement with Comair for the provision of a scheduled air service to St Helena is on hold following the identification of wind shear during an implementation flight in April 2016. SHG remain in touch with Comair on air service provision issues; no fees are being paid to Comair.”
WTSDN asked Comair about their current relationship with SHG. Mr Cochrane said in an email, “we continue committed to continued engagement with SHG and will play whatever role we can in finding a more permanent, reliable air-service solution for the island.”
Personally I’m not quite sure what to make of all this. Could two contracts be in play together? What happens if six months into the new contract, Comair acquires a suitable aircraft for wind shear and say they are ready to restart that original contract? Let’s hope those making the decisions have all these bases covered.
6 – Atlantic Star Airlines
As far as I’m concerned, the turning point in the quest for a solution to St Helena Airport’s wind shear problem was Atlantic Star’s Avro flight in October, 2016. Until then, there was very little to suggest that a viable fix was coming anytime soon.
The Avro RJ100 landings from both ends of the runway demonstrated for the first time that there were real options, and Atlantic Star’s willingness to engage and share information was refreshing.
The Atlantic Star proposal for an air service involves an Avro RJ100 permanently based on St Helena, flying twice weekly shuttles to Ascension to connect with the existing Air Bridge mentioned earlier. If demand is sufficient then onward flights to Accra, Ghana are a possibility.
The company have announced Cello Aviation as their operations partner as part of their bid. Cello Aviation are based in Birmingham, UK and currently operate two luxury Avro jets configured for the VIP and executive travel market.
The Avro that Atlantic Star would use if successful with their bid, however, would still come from Tronos, the company who operated the aircraft for October’s flight.
Considering that the tender states, “SHG is seeking to award a contract or contracts to a suitably qualified organisation or organisations to provide regular air services to the Island…” this sets up the possibility that one operator flies a ‘St Helena – South Africa’ link while a second company manages a ‘St Helena – Ascension’ link. The more I think about this the more exciting the possibilities that spring to mind for both St Helena and Ascension Island.
Atlantic Star has said if selected they “are in a position to get ticketing and flight operations underway very quickly.”
7 – SA Airlink
What we know about SA Airlink already is also very exciting.
Last month Southern Africa’s largest independent regional airline announced they are acquiring five Embraer E-Jets – three E170s and two E190s, to add to the Embraer fleet they already operate as part of ongoing growth and modernisation.
In November/December 2016 when the Brazilian, Embraer E190 carried out those successful test flights here at St Helena Airport there were also SA Airlink pilots on board. The Airlink pilots took turns at the controls to fly training circuits under the watchful eye of the Brazilian company’s test pilot. Clearly a smart move ahead of the tender process.
According to SA Airlink’s website they connect 36 destinations in 9 African countries, carrying more than 1.4m passengers on 44,800 flights annually. Airlink’s main hub is Johannesburg. There is plenty more information, just follow the link to view their website.
A contact in the aviation industry has told us:
“Embraer lists the range of the 190AR at 2,450nm.
“The Johannesburg-St Helena sector is just under 2,000nm and Cape Town-St Helena is almost 1,700nm.
“St Helena is also 700nm from the possible diversion alternate airfield at Ascension Island, located to the north-west.”
8 – Keep The Bids Small
Those are some of key points of the tender process. Most of this we’ve pulled together from SHG’s ‘Request for Proposal’ document and our own previous blog posts about Atlantic Star and the Embraer flight trials.
After the bid deadline passed, SHG have said they are “encouraged by the response” which is a good sign.
The only other stipulation on the ‘Request for Proposal’ that caught my eye was how the tenders were to be submitted to SHG.
All tenders should be submitted electronically by one or more emails of no more than 5 MB each.
Yikes! Our own Breeze e-magazine is 12MB.
On a serious note though, let’s hope the tender process and 2017 turns up a great air service for St Helena. That airport is pretty cool and deserves to be put to good use.