St. Helena hopes to shed 'world's most useless airport' nickname with 1st commercial flight

The St. Helena Airport has been plagued by the nickname "the world's most useless airport," due to its wicked winds and just how remote it is. But that could change this weekend.

Project cost around $413M, paid for by the British government's overseas aid department

It's been plagued by the nickname "the world's most useless airport," due to its wicked winds and just how remote it is.

But St. Helena, the tiny British overseas territory about 2,000 kilometres off the coast of the Central Africa country of Angola, is hoping to shed that moniker with the arrival of its first scheduled commercial flight this Saturday.

The Airlink flight will leave Johannesburg in the morning, make a pit stop in Windhoek, Namibia, to fuel up and check weather conditions and then head to St. Helena Airport. The runway is perched high atop a craggy landscape, far out in the south Atlantic Ocean. The service will run once a week and take about six hours in total.

It took a long time to get here though.

A view of the new runway at St. Helena Airport, the tiny British overseas territory some 2,000 kilometres off the coast of the central African country of Angola. Locals hope the airport will help draw more tourists to the remote island. (Remi Bruneton/St. Helena Access Office)

There's been talk of building an airport on St. Helena, one of the most remote places in the world, since the 1930s. Those conversations became serious in the 2000s and construction finally started in 2012, with the first plane arriving in September 2015.

The project cost around $413 million to build, paid for by the British government's overseas aid department.

A small plane on the runway at the new airport. (Halcrow/St. Helena Access Office)

Scheduled commercial flights on South Africa's Comair were supposed to start landing in St. Helena last year. Prices had even been announced.

But that service was scrapped when testing revealed issues with turbulence and winds meaning large commercial flights could not land reliably.

And that ticked off a lot of islanders.

St Helena, located in the South Atlantic Ocean, is one of the most isolated islands in the world. (CBC News)

Last year, local hotel owner Hazel Wilmot told CBC Radio's As It Happens that with no tourists, she couldn't meet her credit commitments.

"Without guests in the hotel, we have no hotel. It's like a pub without beer," she said. "The electricity will be switched off tomorrow and the hotel will be mothballed." 

The main terminal at the airport that is expected to draw more tourists to the remote island. (St. Helena Access Office)

The new flights will be on a smaller 98-seater plane that is able to land on both ends of the runway. In order to do that though, only 76 people will be able to be on board.

With the arrival of the new flights, airport director Janet Lawrence hopes the island can move forward.

"Yes, we know all of the titles," she said of the "most useless" moniker. "I certainly think it's a situation that's been misunderstood. We've certainly done our best to ignore it."

The British government contributed millions to help establish the airport. (Halcrow/St. Helena Access Office)

According to the Guardian, the British government was warned in a report commissioned in 2014 of high winds that could impact flights, but construction pushed ahead.

Since the mishaps, private planes and medevac flights have been landing at the airport. And Lawrence said even those have made a big difference.

The only way to get to St. Helena is by mail-boat, a trip that takes five days. It runs between Cape Town, St. Helena and sister island Ascension on a three-week rotation.

And that's broken down many times. Lawrence said it was recently out of service for six weeks. With the start of the flights, the boat will be stopped, making its final trip in February.

"It's starting to dawn on St. Helena that we can be somewhere else in less than five days," she said. "It's just about putting us in touch with the rest of the world."

Lawrence said the regular flights mean Saints (what islanders are called) will get mail faster and be able to get more fresh fruit and vegetable options.

The hope is that flights will drive tourists to the island, boosting its economy and offsetting its reliance on Britain. There's mountain biking, scuba diving and lots of Napoleon Bonaparte-related tourist attractions. The British government exiled the French military leader to the island following his Battle of Waterloo loss, and he died there six years later.

Lawrence is very confident that Saturday's flight will touch down without any problems. She said she has seen the plane do it 70 times in tests. She's excited for another reason though.

"I haven't physically felt a newspaper or a magazine in months and months and months," she said. "By the time you get it here … it's three weeks out of date.

"I'm very much looking forward to have a newspaper or a magazine in my hands."

With files from CBC Radio's As It Happens


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