St Helena Air Service Tender Delayed, RMS Broken – Isolation Nightmare

The St Helena Airport, at dawn.

NOTHING SPLENDID ABOUT THIS ISOLATION | Darrin Henry

Today, one year on from the Comair landing of 2016, the St Helena Airport ‘fiasco’ continues.

SHG officials and DfID have tried to conceal that “there will be some slight delay” in the new tender process currently underway to select an air service provider for St Helena. The evaluation period of three months to choose a ‘preferred bidder’ could possibly take up to five instead.

This comes at a time when the RMS St Helena has broken down, Ascension Island runway has cracks and knocking down King & Queen Rock is being discussed.

The Problem With Early Summer

There is a delay in the air service tender.

St Helena Government (SHG) officials and the British Government’s, Department for International Development (DfID) attempted to hide a delay in the announcement of a ‘preferred bidder’ by quietly discarding reference to the published 28 April 2017 deadline, replacing it with the more broader language of “early summer”.

News that the tender is now delayed, by any period of time, will add to the overall sense of frustration felt by islanders.

St Helena Airport has been used by small business jets over the last year, including medevac flights. This was last week, the latest medevac flight taking off from St Helena in the early morning.

To recap, this was the original timeline the new air service tender was supposed to follow:

6 February, 2017 – Bid submission deadline. SHG said it was “encouraged by the response.” 

                28 April, 2017 – Announcement of preferred bidder due.

                31 May, 2017 – Signed, minimum three year contract with chosen air service provider due.

Commencement of scheduled air service then widely expected to begin sometime before the end of 2017.

All seemed on track until 24 March, 2017, when SHG posted an airport update on their website which included this statement:

It is hoped to announce the preferred bidder in early summer 2017.

Having previously promoted the original timeline on our blog as ‘things we knew for sure,’ I was concerned.

I’ve since made six written requests to SHG for clarification on whether the 28 April, ‘preferred bidder’ announcement date still stands. The replies have all avoided confirming or denying the fact.

However, the situation was confirmed by Executive Councillor, Derek Thomas, who sits on the weekly Access Board.

“Yes, there has been some slippage in the process, I have to tell you, I’m aware of that, so there will be some deviation from the original dates,” said Mr Thomas. “There will be some slight delay.”

I looked up the term ‘early summer’ as it applies to UK. It seems this could stretch into the second half of June, in which case this could then push the signed contract to the end of July. Potentially the tender process could be delayed by two months, based on current language.

So, we have a delay. Big deal, some might say.

Sure, but why not just be up front and say so, then? A delay is not such an unreasonable probability, but the sneaky handling after everything that’s gone before, is cause for concern.

It’s difficult not to doubt supposed experts who incomprehensibly failed to adequately consider wind shear when building an airport on top of a 1,000 foot cliff.

It’s not just an island thing either. In November 2016 the UK, House of Commons, Public Accounts Committee panel referred to the project as a ‘fiasco,’ concluding, “Thus far, the Department (DfID) has unquestionably failed the residents of St Helena and the British taxpayer.”

Attempts to hoodwink the public with this latest delay underlines the worrying detachment of those in charge, from the impact this ‘fiasco’ is having on the lives of Saints and everyone affected.

No Need To Move Mountains

During the November 2016, PAC inquiry in London, concerns were expressed that the coastal landmark of King and Queen Rock, at St Helena airport, might be knocked down in the name of wind shear fixing.

St Helena Airport at the top of the cliff with the huge landmass of King and Queen Rock seen to the left of the runway in this picture.

Like many, I had assumed this sensational option was no longer on the table, especially in light of the successful Avro and Embraer test flights in October and December 2016 respectively.

However, in a briefing earlier this month to elected councillors on St Helena given by the island’s Airport Director, the consideration of removing King and Queen Rock was included.

This for me is a worrying development.

Despite the PAC’s repeated questioning in November, to date no one it seems is accountable for the failure to consider wind shear. Would it be any different if removing King and Queen turned out to be wrong?

As expert opinions go I’m more inclined to trust the specialist Faroese and Brazilian pilots of the successful Avro and Embraer test flights than a computer simulation telling us to knock down a small mountain. The pilots had no problem with King and Queen, so let’s leave that rock alone, please.

The Old Lady Is Showing Her Age

It never rains unless it pours.

The airport failings thus far have been highlighted by ongoing problems with the island’s other method of travel.

The RMS St Helena at her usual berth in Cape Town. Photographed in 2015.

Old faithful, the RMS St Helena, the island’s only scheduled, commercial means of travel to and from the outside world for the past 27 years, has serious problems with her starboard propeller.

A complete round-trip voyage was dropped from the regular shipping schedule in order to undergo an emergency dry-dock repair in Simon’s Town, South Africa. Two days after being refloated the repair has failed.

Latest information from SHG indicates the vessel will return to dry-dock later this week which means a second consecutive round-trip voyage is now being dropped.

The disruption in travel plans to hundreds of people is huge. In a statement SHG have said “Discussions continue as to whether an alternative passenger vessel can be located and at the same time investigations continue into whether an aircraft can be sourced.”

The Atlantic Star Proposal

Enter once again, Atlantic Star Airlines. The company’s CEO, Richard Brown, has responded to the crisis with an offer to establish an air link between St Helena, Ascension Island and Accra, Ghana, using an Avro RJ100.

Atlantic Star’s arrival flight at St Helena Airport in October 2016, the Avro RJ100 seen here taxiing onto the parking apron at the end of the flight from Ascension Island.

Atlantic Star have already arranged a successful test flight of this aircraft to St Helena, via Ascension, in October 2016.

Richard Brown told us yesterday, “The aircraft and crew are available, the necessary operating permissions exist and we could get something going very quickly if needed. We would also be able to carry freight. SHG and DfID are aware of our offer and our capability. We are waiting for them to decide the best way forward and we will help in any way that we can.”

Over to you, SHG and DfID, it seems.

Cracks Beginning To Appear

As if there aren’t enough spanners clanging in the island’s accessibility works, here’s another.

The Falklands airbridge flight landing at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island in 2009.

On neighbouring Ascension Island, 700 miles north-west, the “state of repair” of the runway has compromised the operational capability of Wideawake Airfield. This situation was only revealed four days ago as we entered the Easter holidays. This has huge implications for St Helena’s current woes.

Even at 700 miles away, Ascension Island is the closest diversionary airfield should aircraft not be able to land on St Helena.

All round, it’s an almighty mess the island finds itself in at the current time.

Still Failing the Residents of St Helena

It’s ironic that exactly one year ago, 18 April 2016, there was probably never a greater sense of optimism coursing through St Helena’s community. Jet engines were powering in a new age of prosperity and it was arriving in the gleaming red, white and blue colours of British Airways – we were about to be connected to the world.

But of course, wind shear was waiting on Prosperous Bay Plain that day. It extended a vigorous handshake to welcome Comair’s brand new 737-800, triggering far more than just an aborted landing.

There’s clearly a lot of work that needs to be done to sort out the mess the island’s access situation is in.

A good start would be improved quality of communications and a bit more honesty from those at the top.

Excessive secrecy has prevailed over the last year alongside a blatant disregard of the commitment of the island’s people in making the airport project possible. It’s about time this changed.

Day of the wind shear. 18 April, 2016, the Comair operated, British Airways Boeing 737-800 lines up to land at St Helena Airport.

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