The $500 Million Airport Where Planes Can’t Land

Open Jaw

The British Overseas Territory of St. Helena is one of the most remote islands in the world, so remote that it is where the Brits exiled deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.

For modern travellers, getting to the island requires sailing for more than 5 days on the RMS St. Helena, a combination passenger and mail ship. Even the St. Helena tourism authority suggests that "getting to St Helena is part of the attraction; it is an adventure all in itself!"

That was all supposed to change with the construction of a shiny new airport at a cost of more than $500 million. HLE is now finished, but the launch of commercial airline service there has run into some headwinds – or more precisely wind shear.

In April, the government of St. Helena deemed the airport unsafe for regular passenger airline flights because of high winds.

The British government had agreed to pay for the construction of the airport in order to help St. Helena become “financially self-sufficient,” in part by developing its tourism industry. The island is currently funded by government subsidies. 

The St. Helena government recently issued a statement pushing back against media coverage of the delay in operating the airport. “Press reports in the U.K. and elsewhere that describe St. Helena Airport as being ‘scrapped’, ‘mothballed’ or ‘postponed indefinitely’ are incorrect," the statement says. "The situation remains as in our last update. This is that there are wind shear challenges on one runway (20, the northern approach) which means larger planes cannot currently land safely. We are collecting wind data which will allow larger planes to land on this runway, but this will take some time.

"In the meantime, we are working hard to identify an interim flight solution that can land on our 2nd runway (02, from the south). There is no wind shear on this 2nd runway, but there is a tailwind. We have identified aircraft types which can land in these conditions, and airlines that have such planes – and we are now exploring the specific availability of aircraft with these airlines."

In the meantime, the RMS St. Helena was scheduled to end its service to the island in June after the airport opened. Now, the ship will continue to provide the only regular transportation to and from the 10 mile long island until a solution for the airport can be worked out.

As USA Today puts it: “St. Helena has been ruggedly remote and sparsely inhabited since its discovery in 1502 – so what’s another month or 2?”

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