As It Happens

Remote island builds airport, discovers it's too windy for planes to land

People in St. Helena, like hotel owner Hazel Wilmot, are devastated, after the $490-million airport proves unusable for commercial flights.
After building a $490 million dollar airport, the remote island of St. Helena has discovered that it's too windy for large planes to land. (St. Helena Government / YouTube screengrab)

It was supposed to be St Helena's golden ticket. What was once a five-day ship journey to the remote South Atlantic island was about to shrink to a short plane ride.

We were promised an airport. Now I'm sitting with a hotel that's going to close tomorrow.- St. Helena island resident Hazel Wilmot 

But after the $490-million airport, funded by the British government, was opened, it was clear there was a major problem.

The high winds that buffeted the airport meant that large commercial flights could not reliably land.

Hazel Wilmot owns the island's Consulate Hotel. She was betting everything on the influx of tourists from the flights. 

Wilmot tells As It Happens host Carol Off, "Without guests in the hotel, we have no hotel. It's like a pub without beer."

Now without planes landing, she'll have to close her doors.

"Unfortunately, we can't meet our creditors commitments," Wilmot says. "The electricity will be switched off tomorrow and the hotel will be mothballed."

It has emerged that officials may have known about the wind issues before the airport opened.

According to The Guardian, the UK government was warned in a report commissioned in 2014 of high winds that could impact flights. Construction pushed ahead.

"People chose not to take advice that was given to them," Wilmot says. "Before the construction of any runway, certain tests had to be done. They were not."

Wilmot says she believes hiding that information from residents could amount to fraud.

"They did nothing about it for 20 months. They didn't tell us, the investors. They didn't tell the pilots who flew in," she says. "They kept quiet knowing there was a problem."

St. Helena Island is located deep in the South Atlantic Ocean. (mapbox)

The local island council is demanding an investigation and compensation. But the governor of the island, Lisa Phillips, has said that the British government cannot be held liable.

Meanwhile, Hazel Wilmot, although deep in debt and facing the closure of her hotel, is staying put on the island.

"St. Helena is my home. I will do everything I can to see that this situation is taken care of." 

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