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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 St Helena air service tender process currently underway to select an air service provider for the island. 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 St Helena 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 St Helena 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.”

Failing The People Of St Helena

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 St Helena air service tender delay and other 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 Airlines, one of those bidding for the new St Helena air service tender.

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.

Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island

The Falklands airbridge flight landing at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island in 2009. The current runway problems there come at a time the St Helena air service tender is suffering a delay.

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.

The St Helena Air Service Tender, One Year On

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, especially when it comes to the St Helena air service tender.

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.

COMMENTS

  • Rick and Sally Stucker

    April 20, 2017

    Hi Darrin and Sharon,

    Wow, what a post, filled with so much information as well as an almost palpable level of frustration with the current “perfect storm” of transport problems, largely centered on the airport situation of course. We hope that the pieces of the puzzle start falling in the proper places, for you and all of the Saints. We are booked on RMS voyage 266 later this year for a highly anticipated return to your lovely island. If you are around in December, we would love to share a beer and some stories!

    Cheers,

    • April 21, 2017

      We’ll always aim to be home for Christmas! Will be fantastic to meet you guys and have a drink. Feels like we know you already 🙂 will be so nice to put faces to the names. Thanks for the feedback on the post, as always. We remain ever optimistic things will work out, as you have to be, eh! Cheers!

  • Judy Hildebrand

    April 19, 2017

    I love your blog, thanks so much for providing up to date info on beautiful St Helena. Last year I had the opportunity to visit your home, a long time goal as other sailors told stories about stopping at the island while making the transit across the South Atlantic. A sail to St Helena was high on my list and finally became a reality. I really wanted to visit because of the absolute remoteness and before the world found out about you! I thoroughly enjoyed your Island home and all of the friendly Saints that I met. I certainly understand now how important the airport is to all of you because of the very remoteness I wanted to experience. My heart is with you in this crazy time and certainly hope both the airport and RMS can be sorted out soon!!! Wish I could sail back with a ship full of supplies and rides out for you. Wishing you Saints the very best!

    • April 19, 2017

      Hi Judy, thanks for the comment. We’ve met so many wonderful yachties in the short life of the blog so far with their amazing travel stories. St Helena is blessed to have so many call in to visit. Thanks for the support, hope we get to welcome you back to these shores again some day. Safe sailing, cheers 🙂

  • John Cassels

    April 18, 2017

    Dear Sharon & Henry – thanks again for keeping us informed so well. It is a shame that an unsuitable aircraft (B737-800) was chosen for the initial proving flights. A B737-700 or an Airbus A319 would have been more suitable and subsequently both the Embraer 190 and the RJ100 have proven themselves adequate to the task – at least for the nearer destinations such as Accra (connections with London) or perhaps to Windhoek with connections to Cape Town and J’burg. Secrecy always smells bad and something appears to be covered up in this case – probably a few choice backsides! Enough money has spent building much more airport infrastructure than actually needed, yet windshear studies not completed (or listened to). Hmmm. Hang in there. Let’s pray than good sense will prevail despite current showing. Thanks again. /john

    • John Cassels

      April 18, 2017

      I meant Darren. Sorry! Don’t know where my mind created ‘Henry’ from …

    • April 19, 2017

      Thanks for the comment John. It actually seems to me that until the Atlantic Star Avro and Brazilian Embraer rocked up, the experts were a bit blinkered with taking wind measurements, not even considering a different ‘tool’ for the job might be the answer. Unfortunately we’ll never know as they don’t do interviews or press briefings. A year on it’s frustrating to be told very little besides “we’re working on a solution, be patient.”
      But we remain ever hopeful all will come good soon and that good sense will prevail! Cheers 🙂

  • susan Homolka

    April 18, 2017

    Darren and Sharon: THANK YOU for researching and providing this information. You did an excellent job. Indeed what would happen if King and Queen were removed and the problem persists? It is time to work with the aircraft and pilots whom have experience with the island’s type of terrain. St Helena can’t survive in isolation. There are also many of us who want to and in a way need to get back there as well. Thanks again for keeping us posted.

    • April 19, 2017

      Hey Susan, thanks for the feedback. Yep, agreed, it’s time to start listening to the real experts in all this. We all on the island look forward to the day that friends and family from can visit without having to break the bank each time or give up a whole year’s leave. Cheers 🙂

  • Helen Standen

    April 18, 2017

    A year ago today I stood at Horse Point. along with many Islanders and most school children watching the Comair/BA flight attempting to land. It was an awesome sight and I felt privileged to have witnessed it and the construction of the airport during the preceding 3 years. In fact I was hoping to return to the Island later in 2016 or at least at some point during 2017, which looks very unlikely now. Unless you have been lucky enough to visit or live on the Island, it is impossible to understand the impact that no fights AND no RMS will be having on such an isolated community. No way of getting off the Island or for supplies to get in. Removing such a natural wonder as King and Queen rock shouldn’t even be considered. Planes can land as already proven, just not a Boeing 737. I suspect there is an issue with the contract awarded to Comair that is causing the ‘delay’ and further issues. I hope it gets resolved quickly and I can return to visit the Island and Saints who have become firm friends

    • April 19, 2017

      We look forward to you and so many other friends of St Helena being able to return, Helen. Islands have that special way of building long term connections. It was a real privilege to have witnessed those early flights, know exactly what you mean. Thanks for the comment, best wishes 🙂

  • Patrick G Henry

    April 18, 2017

    As always another vital and exciting Blog News. Not only those who voted for an airport has been affected by delayed flights it has disrupted and course hindrance to so many peoples lives and plans, without openness from DFID and SHG to educate the public we will continue loosing faith and time inaction, makes one wonder if St Helena’s economy will develop growth from the airport. So far it has proven medic-vac flights has save lives.
    Well done TWTSDN. Darrin & Sharon.

    • April 19, 2017

      Cheers Borbs, thanks for the comment 🙂 Always appreciate the support.

  • Jean Fowler

    April 18, 2017

    Brilliant read Darrin and Sharon, and all so true. We should be seeing commercial flights flying in and out of St Helena Airport by now. Instead we are in limbo because no one wants to be responsible for pressing the decision button.

    • April 18, 2017

      Thanks Jean Fowler. So true, we should be a year into air travel by now.

  • Paul Blake

    April 18, 2017

    Another Great Article Darrin – Shame you had to write it though

    • April 18, 2017

      Indeed. 🙁 Thanks for the feedback Paul. Cheers

  • Eric

    April 18, 2017

    Spot on Darrin & Sharon. I share your views and frustrations.

    • April 18, 2017

      Cheers Eric. ‘Frustration’ really is the word!

  • karenza777

    April 18, 2017

    Big sigh …… poor St H 🙁
    Thanks for your insights. Have you guys thought of publishing your own newspaper on island?

    • April 18, 2017

      Big sigh indeed 🙁
      No newspaper ambitions, Karenza! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  • David Ward

    April 18, 2017

    Another wonderful an informative blog Darren and Sharon! Fantastic and great read, with a lots of unanswered questions and so much more frustration for the islanders! Think that heads should be knocked together a lot harder for all these accumulated problems to come up with solutions and to get the right professional authorities involved and onboard. Also a lot more transparency an openness should be involved, and islanders kept informed!

    • Richard Lewis

      April 18, 2017

      Now we have a General Election heading our way perhaps those of us in the UK should be asking our prospective Members of Parliament A couple of searching questions on how they would address the utter shambles that is DFID – The Airport at St.Helena is not, unfortunately, an isolated incident of DFID mis-management of UK taxpayer payer funds although the St Helena project has perhaps become an icon of how if how bad things have become! My thoughts are especially with those who made significant personal financial investments on the back of DFID (and probably to a lesser extent) SHG project delivery promises. Let’s hope that the next UK Government will cull the incompetent Civil Servants (including the Permanent Secretary and no doubt their ‘Consultants’) at DFID who should and indeed must be held fully accountable for the current state of affairs

    • April 18, 2017

      Thanks for the comment David. It’s astonishing how DfID and SHG continue to avoid meaningful transparency and engagement. I think they would be surprised at how much easier it could be if islanders were included more in the process. Cheers 🙂

  • April 18, 2017

    Another fantastic peice of reporting Darrin/Sharon and all so true. Hopefully the RMS Saga will force someones hand and we have something done real soon, but then again nothing comes as a real surprise anymore. I will watch this page with interest – Great work!

    • April 18, 2017

      Thanks Derek. Let’s hope this is a wake up call.

  • Attie Labuschagne

    April 18, 2017

    Hello. am sorry to say this but I think your lovely island with all its peace and tranquility is destined to become a not so nice a place to visit. It was the one place that my family and I long to visit again but finances as they presently are does not allow it. Development is not always advancement and in St Helenas case, reversal to prior the airfield will be the real advancement. May the good Lord bless all on the island and bless the island from destruction as well.

    Attie Labuschagne GROBLERSDAL South Africa

    On Tue, Apr 18, 2017 at 7:49 AM, What The Saints Did Next wrote:

    > Saints posted: ” 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 ” >

    • April 18, 2017

      Thanks for your comment Attie and your blessings for the island. It’s not the development ambition that we’re worried about, it’s the poor leadership in taking the island forward. St Helena is plagued by decision makers who have no long-term accountability sadly. Thanks again.

  • Andrea

    April 18, 2017

    “All round it’s an almighty mess” …
    Great blog guys! Absolutely spot on!!! 😀

  • Richard Lewis

    April 18, 2017

    Given the state of play within DFID you really have to wonder about the level of capability within that Government Department to run the process. I certainly know one thing – if the Project Management business I ran reflected the outcomes displayed by DFID, then two outcomes would have been certain. Firstly I would be unemployed and secondly the business shareholders would have sought the removal of the Leadership Team. I don’t however see that happening here – more the pity.

    • April 18, 2017

      I’m not filled with confidence either Richard. Thanks for the comment.

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