A TALE OF TWO SOUTH ATLANTIC RUNWAYS | Darrin Henry
The most crucial St Helena Airport news got hi-jacked last week by SA Airlink’s successful RJ85 Avro flight and the 108 passengers who unwittingly became history makers. Understandable under the circumstances but, a week on, I think it’s well taking another look and noting some big points.
The Ascension and St Helena Air Bridge
St Helena Government’s (SHG) Access Board confirmed in a press conference on Tuesday 2 May, that the air service tender currently under consideration, is unaffected by the runway problems on Ascension Island.
Although this piece of St Helena Airport news slipped under the radar it is probably of greater significance than that historic first commercial flight. To me, anyway.
The Ascension Island government announced last month, that Wideawake Airfield will only be used for transporting ‘essential personnel and goods.’ The UK/Falkland Islands air bridge, operated by the MoD is being re-routed away from Ascension Island due to the runway ‘state of repair’ preventing heavier aircraft landing. Repairs proper to the damaged runway surface are not expected for some time; Ascension government have since said the air bridge is not expected to restart before 2019/20.
There was always the worry this development would render Ascension unavailable as a diversionary airport for flights to St Helena. Bids to operate an air service to St Helena, which are currently under consideration, were submitted based on Ascension being available. Had this changed we might have incurred a significant delay for bid re-calculation and re-submission which would have been terrible news for everyone desperate for the long promised, faster, cheaper travel.
So this at least is good news. Despite ‘essential personnel and goods’ only for Wideawake Airfield, the runway will still be available to any aircraft that finds itself unable to land at St Helena, for whatever reason.
Although the tender process has been hit by one delay so far, it would seem the revised ‘early summer’ deadline for announcing a preferred bidder remains intact for now. Phew!
The Cost Of The SA Airlink Flight To St Helena
The Ascension connection is the big one, but other interesting information also emerged from what was a good week for St Helena Airport news.
Last week’s SA Airlink charter flight to St Helena came with an overall price tag of £113,000.
SHG engaged the services of Air Partner to organise the emergency flight for passengers who had become stranded in Cape Town. The situation arose after problems with the island’s ship, the RMS St Helena, which continues to be the only scheduled means of travel to and from St Helena for now.
Air Partner then sourced SA Airlink to deliver the flight.
Fares already paid for sea travel were used to offset the overall charter cost. SHG made up the difference, in the order of £50-60K.
Although the 60 available seats from Cape Town to St Helena were all accounted for by stranded passengers, there was space on the return leg and these were offered at £850 per person, one way.
SHG were keen to stress the prices attached to the charter flight were in no way indicative of what future fares might be once scheduled services start.
A year ago, the price of an air ticket to St Helena, when Comair were still expected to provide the service, had a starting price of £583 return. Fingers crossed we end up with something not too dissimilar.
Thank You Atlantic Star
In what was undoubtedly a good week for St Helena Airport news, there was a sad note that I feel needs mention.
While we all celebrated the SA Airlink Avro landing, unknown to me at the time, and many others it would seem, Atlantic Star Airlines had been informed by SHG five days earlier that they will, “not be invited to participate in the next phase of the Air Access tender process.”
As far as I’m concerned, without Atlantic Star, last week’s historic flight might not have taken place. And here’s why I say this.
Put quite simply, before Atlantic Star rocked up on Prosperous Bay Plain in October 2016 with their Avro RJ100 flight and specialist pilots, we had suffered a bleak six months where no one seemed to know how to overcome the wind shear.
Atlantic Star organised a successful landing of an Avro RJ100 on both runway approaches. A completely private venture, laying out their case for consideration as air service providers to St Helena. Read our post for full details.
The ‘Request for Proposal’ document, or tender invitation, to provide an air service to St Helena, specifically requires the preferred bidder to, “…undertake an Implementation Flight to St Helena Airport prior to commencement of operations to test all aspects of operations at St Helena Airport, including runway approaches, ground handling and passenger handling services.”
Knowing how spooked the British and St Helena Governments were by wind shear in April 2016, I don’t see how either would have approved last week’s passenger carrying flight without having seen what the Avro could do back in October. It’s an opinion only, of course.
There are many on St Helena and abroad who will have been very disappointed to learn Atlantic Star are no longer being considered after the vital role they played. I suppose in the world of commercial aviation contracts there’s little room for sentiment and it’s probably small-island naivety to expect it. Even so, thank you Atlantic Star.
Latest St Helena Airport News, Another Successful Air Medevac
Even through the frustration of delays with scheduled flights, one of the big success stories of the airport has been medical evacuations by air – four hours to reach specialist medical care in Cape Town compared to the previous five day journey by sea. The first air medevac from St Helena took place in June 2016.
On Wednesday this week, medevac flight number seven took place.
World Press Freedom Day on St Helena
I’ve grumbled a few times on our blog about the lack of communication and official information around the island’s air access. It was therefore a refreshing surprise when SHG announced a St Helena Airport news press conference at The Castle in Jamestown, the day before the SA Airlink flight. No restrictions on time or topics for discussion, it was exactly what was needed.
It’s been no secret that SHG officials and elected councillors have been gagged by the British Government’s, Department for International Development, (DfID) from publicly discussing airport issues or engaging with the media. Councillor Lawson Henry has been very vocal against this and has led calls for keeping the public better informed.
The press conference at The Castle was definitely well appreciated and I’m certain of as much value to SHG as the local media. Both the island’s radio stations/newspapers were present.
Next day at the airport, once the charter flight had departed, a follow-up press conference was held. Learning first-hand that all air-side systems and processes had functioned perfectly was brilliant.
Coincidentally, this was also on the day designated by UNESCO as, World Press Freedom Day. Long may this trend continue.
Welcome to St Helena Airport
Finally, a week later, my enduring memory of that historic Wednesday.
As we drove home from the airport there was one thing I couldn’t stop talking about; the atmosphere inside St Helena Airport.
Sharon and I went early that morning to get a sense of how the airport functioned under the first real operational conditions. We both can’t say enough how amazingly well the staff handled that first day.
The word that sums it all up is – calm.
It was always going to be interesting to see how the new airport coped – passengers, family and friends and curious onlookers.
Wednesday 3 May, 2017 was the day St Helena Airport was truly ‘open.’ This was what we signed up for and it was fantastic to see.
The novelty of an airport receiving a flight with 60 passengers will probably leave people elsewhere bemused, but on St Helena, it’s been the event of the year so far.
Witnessing new arrivals is a 350 year tradition of island life which until now only took place at the sea front on ship days. But we have had a glimpse of what the future is going to look like.
Everyone that day was made welcome. The cafe and Viewing Deck upstairs was heaving but instead of turning people away the airport staff brought in extra chairs. I overheard other staff making sure a park and ride system was ready, just in case the car park got too full. The concourse was well managed; plenty of high-vis vests directing operations, but again, no fuss, no bossing people about – just calm and efficient.
There are going to be more testing times ahead, no doubt. There will have been kinks and unexpected issues identified that will need attention; teething problems. But this was an amazing day for St Helena Airport news. It came alive, gracefully accepting its island identity, no longer just a big building on ‘Bay Plain.’ Professional mind you, but definitely an airport for the people of St Helena.
Yes, it has been a good week on St Helena.