Tuesday, 31 July 2012

St Helena Airport and the Crisis in the Tourist Industry

Image of St Helena's planned new airport bulding

Since the appearance of Simon Pipes' very active blog, St Helena Online, I have felt less need to comment on current events on St Helena. I felt though that I should cover the latest news about the airport project, a long running saga that is now no longer a mirage, if I may be allowed to mix my metaphors!

This very day the island's Council has approved the design of the new airport building.

Less prominent in the news, I notice from the St Helena Independent that the revised completion date for the airport is now 25th February 2016, thereby missing the 200th anniversary of Waterloo and the arrival of Napoleon!

It will be a surprise to me if there is not further slippage on a project of this size at such a remote location.

Initially at least the airport will be restricted to Boeing 737-700 and Airbus A319, which carry around 120 passengers. (1)

Apparently the plans for the runway have been amended at no extra cost. The original contract was for a runway of 1550 metres, with an Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) at the end. It has now been decided pro tem to dispense with the EMAS, and to build a full 250 metre Runway End Safety Area (RESA). This will make it easier at a later date to upgrade the airport so that larger aircraft carrying 160 passengers, such as the Boeing 737-800 or Airbus 320 can land. All that would be needed apparently would to construct an EMAS and make the existing RESA part of the runway.

Crisis in the St. Helena Tourist Industry

Elsewhere I note the concerns expressed by the owners of the two hotels on St Helena, the Consulate and Farm Lodge, about the dire straits of the tourist industry.

Farm Lodge Hotel, St. Helena

This presumably is partly a global problem, but has in their view been exacerbated by management of the RMS St Helena which has been marketed more as a cruise ship than as a mail boat carrying passengers to the island. Encouraging passengers to stay on board whilst paying short visits to the island and including a trip to Tristan da Cunha in its schedules has undoubtedly reduced the number of tourists needing accommodation. A number of RMS berths have also been taken up by employees of the airport contractor, but the demand from them for hotel accommodation has apparently not materialised.

The owner of the Consulate has announced that she will have to lay off staff and close the accomodation part of the hotel after Christmas because of a lack of bookings.

The Consulate Hotel, Jamestown, St. Helena

So can I urge anyone who is thinking of making a trip to the island to do so. I for one have made my own plans, wishing to visit the island again before the airport changes it forever. My wife and I can hardly wait.


1. I notice that there is an option for the Airbus A319 to carry over 150 passengers. I have no idea whether this version requires a longer runway, but I imagine it does. I understand that planes to Cape Town and Johannesburg will not be able to carry a full load because of the extra fuel needed. A short hop to Ascension, not yet approved by the US, would be less of a problem. I suspect that the rocky terrain, the steep approaches and the high altitude, not to mention the high winds and changeable weather, will provide challenging conditions for pilots. I am sure that the authorities on St Helena and in London have already thought all these things through!