The long-awaited first scheduled airline service to the British overseas territory of St Helena has landed – and, true to the much-maligned new airport’s chequered history, it was late.
The UK taxpayer-funded development on the remote South Atlantic island welcomed its first 78 commercial airline passengers just before 2pm yesterday, about 45 minutes behind schedule, following their departure from South Africa.
St Helena Airport, built with £285 million from the Department for International Development (Dfid), was due to open last year but the launch of commercial flights was delayed because of dangerous winds.
Further trials were carried out in August and the airport was given the go-ahead to begin operations by South African aviation authorities.
Airlink’s Embraer E190-100IGW aircraft was due to land at 1.15pm local time yesterday but ended up touching down at nearly 2pm. SA Airlink is to launch weekly flights from Johannesburg.
Ahead of the first flight’s landing, St Helena governor Lisa Phillips said: “As the big day draws near, I for one am getting really excited about the new chapter in St Helena’s history. I am sure everyone will give this first flight a huge St Helena welcome.
“We can all think about memorable holidays we have had in our lives, at home or abroad. For the people on the flight this week, and every subsequent week, the people of St Helena will be making those memories for our visitors. Let’s make sure they are fantastic ones.”
Flights between St Helena, 1,200 miles off the west coast of Africa, and Johannesburg will take six hours and 15 minutes including a stop in Windhoek, Namibia.
Travel to and from the island has previously only been possible by ship, with RMS St Helena taking about six days to make the journey from South Africa. Its final voyage on the route will take place in February.
UK officials hope the improved accessibility will boost tourism and help make the island self-sufficient. St Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile in 1821, receives £52 million in aid from the UK each year.
The air link will also make it easier for islanders to access specialist medical care as well as education and employment opportunities.
A Dfid spokeswoman said: “This is an important moment in St Helena’s route to self-sufficiency.”
In December an MPs’ report found the airport project “unquestionably failed” UK taxpayers and islanders.
MPs on the public accounts committee said it was “staggering” that ministers and officials did not foresee the wind problem.
The issue of wind shear on St Helena was noted by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle in 1836, and MPs challenged Dfid about why it had commissioned an airport paid for by the British taxpayer without properly appreciating this danger.
Officials said they had commissioned a feasibility study by engineering consultancy Atkins and acted on its recommendations, as well as taking advice from the Met Office and aviation regulators.