[British Oversees Territory Airports] St. Helena Airport

RWY 18/36 can be seen on the right side of the island
Saint Helena Airport is an airport under construction since early 2012 in the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The airport is scheduled to open in February 2016, which is when the ship serving the island is to be retired.


Saint Helena is located more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) from the nearest major landmass, and it can currently only be reached by ship. This takes 5 days from Cape Town, with departure once per 3 weeks, making Saint Helena one of the most remote populated places on earth, measured as travel time from major cities.


The first considerations for an airport on St Helena were made in 1943 by the South African Air Force which undertook a survey on Prosperous Bay Plain from October 1943 until January 1944 but concluded that while technically feasible, an airport was not a practical proposition. From the 1960s, there was an idea to build an airport on the St Helena Island. In 1999, this was taken up by the island government. After a long period of rumour and consultation, the British government announced plans to construct an airport in Saint Helena in March 2005 and the airport was originally expected to be completed by 2010. However constant delays by the British government not least due to inaction by Prime Minister Gordon Brown who insisted on reviewing the paperwork himself meant an approved bidder, the Italian firm Impregilo, was not chosen until 2008. Then the project was put on hold in November 2008, allegedly due to new financial pressures brought on by the credit-crunch.

By January 2009, construction had not commenced and no final contracts had been signed, and the then Island Governor Andrew Gurr departed for London in an attempt to speed up the process and solve the problems. On 22 July 2010, the new British government agreed to help pay for the new airstrip using taxpayer money. It was only on 3 November 2011 that the new Governor Mark Andrew Capes announced construction contracts were signed.

The airport is expected to open in 2016, by which time the RMS Saint Helena, the only regular ship to call at St Helena, will be retired. Its advocates hope the airport will bring growth to the isolated island economy through the tourism sector which, in the long term, is expected to lead to financial self-sustainability and an end to UK budgetary aid.


A total amount of £201.5 million has been funded for design and construction which will be carried out by South African engineering group Basil Read (Pty) Ltd. Additional funds of up to £10 million in shared risk contingency, and £35.1 million for ten years of operation by South-African airport operator Lanseria Airport have also been granted by the UK Government. According to the St Helena government this represents a saving of more than 20% in real terms from the 2008 price, taking into account inflation and the value of the pound. The airport will be the largest single investment ever made in the island.

Location and dimensions

The airport is due to be built on Prosperous Bay Plain, on the east side of Saint Helena entailing a concrete runway of 1,550m (5,085 ft) with taxiway and apron, approximately 8 million m³ rockfill embankment through which a 750m long reinforced concrete culvert will run, an airport terminal building of 3,500m² and support infrastructure, air traffic control and safety, bulk fuel installation for 6 million litres of diesel and aviation fuel, a 14 km airport access road from Rupert's Bay to the airport, and all related logistics.

Aircraft compatibility

Given its dimensions the airport will be capable of accommodating up to two twinjet passenger aircraft up to the size of the Airbus A319, Boeing 737 and also the Boeing 757-200. Following the decision for a shorter runway of 1,550 m the previously planned use of Boeing 737-800 aircraft had been ruled out in the first instance. Instead the airport was to be designed to receive Boeing 737-700 aircraft. However on 17 July 2012 the St Helena Government and Basil Read agreed to a change to the runway design which includes widening the embankment over an additional 40m at the southern end, paving an additional 100m of the runway with concrete, providing larger turning circles at the runway ends, and increasing the size of the apron. In contrast to the 2011 Reference Design for the airport it will now have a full 240m Runway End Safety Area (RESA) at the southern end of the runway instead of the originally planned Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS). The intention is to add an EMAS designed for Boeing 737-800 at a later date butting onto the southern end of the paved runway to increase the declarable Landing Distance Available (LDA) to 1,650m, which will then allow receiving larger aircraft such as the Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A320.

The additional earthworks and concrete will increase duration of construction by 12 weeks so works are now expected to be completed by 25 February 2016. Extending the embankment once the airport is operational would have involved prohibitive costs as heavy equipment would have needed to be brought back to the island and huge quantities of rock from another site to be moved, while now material excavated from Prosperous Bay Plain will be used to fill Dry Gut.

In June 2013 the St Helena Government announced it was again assessing changes that can be made to the design of the runway to cater for operations of a wider range of aircraft, in particular the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Boeing 757-200, the latter enabling direct flights to Europe, which are believed to be crucial for the island's tourism plans. These are Code D aircraft requiring the addition of shoulders along both sides of the runway, a wider taxiway and apron, and a higher fire fighting capacity (ICAO Rescue Fire Fighting Service Category 7).

In October 2013 a formal agreement was signed for the proposed design changes. These enhancements will also make it possible for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules to operate to and from St Helena, though the runway is unlikely to be able to accommodate larger Code D aircraft, such as the Boeing 767. The upgrade will be funded from cost savings on other parts of the project, particularly by a simplified runway drainage system.

Potential routes

Flights may potentially operate services to London and Cape Town, and possibly Johannesburg. A link to Ascension Island is still subject to negotiation between the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the US Defense Department since the Wideawake Airfield at Ascension island is closed to commercial air traffic. Therefore it also cannot be listed by an airline as an alternate aerodrome; although situated 800 miles north-northwest from St Helena it is the closest alternative airport. This leaves Lubango Airport in Angola at a distance of 1,300 miles as the next best diversion option for which every inbound aircraft must carry enough fuel reserve, limiting its load capacity.


It is believed that reductions in ticket prices can be obtained by utilising spare payload capacity on flight to and from St Helena to carry air freight (e.g. agricultural products, coffee, fish). At 70% passenger load factor a B737-800 operating, on an average day, into St Helena would have a spare payload capacity of some 4,000 kg. The extra income possible per in-bound flight from cargo could be as high as the income equivalent of 19 passengers. This would give an effective load factor of 88% and could reduce ticket prices.


Due to the short runway and the long distance to South Africa a Boeing 737-700 flying to Cape Town or Johannesburg will not be able to use its full seat and cargo capacity. Only flights to and from Namibian and Angolan destinations would allow using a Boeing 737-700 near its full load capacity.

As of January 2012 TAAG Angola Airlines is the only airline in Southern Africa operating aircraft that would be appropriate for flights to and from St Helena (fleet of 4 Boeing 737-700).

If Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island was open for commercial (i.e. non-military) flights, it could be listed as an alternate aerodrome; this would mean that the load capacity of an inbound Boeing 737-700 could be increased as less fuel reserves would be required.

The distance from key destinations, the length of runway available, and the type of aircraft available in the region dictate that air services to St Helena will have to operate to the requirements of Extended Twin Engine Operations (ETOPS) which implies the provision of an instrument approach system based on an off-set Instrument Landing System Localiser (ILS LLZ).

Such is also required by the terrain of the airport which, in commercial passenger air transport terms, is safety-critical, due to its steep approaches, high elevation (1,000 ft above sea level) and rocky outcrops. Without an instrument approach the provision of a viable air service is considered impossible.

There are doubts concerning local weather conditions and, in particular, there are doubts about the amount of turbulence that could be expected on the approaches from fallwinds resulting from the elevated location and the surrounding bluffs. Therefore it has been recommended a charter aircraft to perform approaches to and departures from the intended runway, which have not taken place so far.

Navigation aids

St Helena Airport will be equipped with an instrument landing system (ILS) and a Doppler VHF Omni-directional Radio Range system (DVOR) supplied by Thales Group. Further to that Honeywell Aerospace will supply a SmartPath Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS), a technology that augments Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to make them suitable for precision approach and landing. It overcomes many of the limitations of Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) traditionally used by airports to guide aircraft as they approach the runway.

Infrastructure and logistics

Logistics of the airport's construction are critical, because of the island's isolated location and the lack of construction equipment, which will require everything such as extremely heavy duty equipment and materials to be shipped in, thus resulting in a huge and unique logistics operation.

Due to the limited landing infrastructure, with no breakwater or mooring facilities at the sea front, new harbour facilities capable of handling construction equipment and fuel supplies were constructed at Rupert's Bay. Fuel transfers between Rupert's Bay and the aerodrome connected by a 14 km haul road are assumed to be by road tanker for 20 years, after which a capital allowance has been made for enlargement of the bulk fuel storage and the installation of a fuel transfer pipeline.

Basil Read has been sourcing its own ship, a roll-on/roll-off vessel called NP Glory 4 flying the Thai flag, which, as planned, docked for the first time at St Helena on 11 July 2012 and has since been regularly supplying the island with cargo and personnel for the project.

The company also considers developing a temporary runway to enable the use of a C-130 Hercules-type aircraft to facilitate quicker access to the site within 18 months of the beginning of construction.

Project progress

On 4 November 2011 Basil Read has been awarded to construct an airport on St Helena Island. The first representatives of Basil Read visited the island on Saturday 19 November 2011 for initial investigations and discussions. Following a second team's visit during December 2011 Basil Read's project manager has settled to the island and the first St Helenian citizen has been employed. Preparation works are expected to begin in early 2012 in Rupert's Valley on the west coast, which includes establishing storage facilities, a temporary fuel farm and the design and construction of a temporary wharf.

Basil Read CEO Heyns in November 2011 said design phase would begin immediately and anticipated that construction could begin in May 2012 which at peak would employ some 300 people of which as many locals as possible should be involved. Migrant workers arriving for the airport development project will be subject to a screening for HIV. Construction is said to take place over a 48-month period.

Only four weeks after the approval for the airport to be constructed and years before operations would start, Geo. Robson & Co. (Conveyors) Ltd had already completed and shipped a baggage reclaim carousel for the airport. It will sit half inside the terminal and half outside for the baggage handlers to load with passengers' luggage. The company stated that with a 12 metre perimeter it is one of the smallest baggage reclaim carousels they have ever manufactured. Until the airport opens it will be used at St Helena's harbour to deliver baggage to passengers arriving by the RMS St Helena.

In June 2013 the 100,000th truckload of fill went into Dry Gut, a gorge which must be raised by almost 100m in order to create an embankment that will finally carry parts of the runway. This is equivalent to nearly 19% of the total of 8,000,000m³ required. Basil Read’s calculations showed that a further 430,000 truckloads of material is needed to complete the fill. As of July 2014, the Dry Gut fill project has a projected completion date of 8 September 2014.

Project prospects

Air access would allow St Helena to develop its tourism sector. A to-be-constructed wharf in Rupert's Bay - if sized appropriately - could allow regularly passing cruise ships to land passengers at the island and bring tourists. To date the lack of a protected landing facility represents a limitation on the development of cruise tourism because, in unfavourable sea conditions, landing is hazardous and potential revenue is lost as many cruise ships refuse to allow passengers to land in such circumstances. In addition, due to the lack of a protected landing facility, many cruise companies do not incorporate St Helena into their itineraries. The sea is roughest in summer which marks the peak of the cruise season.

Medical evacuations to South Africa for treatment of serious cases of illness would be sped up significantly, as currently it may take up to one month until transport to South Africa by the RMS St Helena becomes available.

The availability of heavy construction equipment would facilate alternative energy projects, such as the construction of larger wind turbines, a tidal power plant or a dam with a hydro-power station in one of St Helena's valleys. Currently limitations in cargo size of RMS St Helena and the unavailability of a large crane prohibit construction of larger wind turbines.

Airlines and destinations

St Helena will have an open skies policy; this allows any airline operator who meets all the required standards to fly in and out of St Helena. AviaSolutions has been appointed to support the St Helena Government and DFID in reaching a contract with an air service provider to provide services to the island. The St Helena Government expects that a return economy flight from St Helena to South Africa will cost around £600. Assuming that an off-peak economy seat from South Africa to the UK are available for approximately £700, return tickes for flights via South Africa to the UK would take the ticket price to around £1,300.

In June 2013 Atlantic Star Airlines which was incorporated in England and Wales on 20 November 2012, announced that it would bid for the contract to fly to St Helena when the airport opens in 2016. It plans to serve a route network that will operate from the UK, down to the island and on to Cape Town with a used Boeing 757 aircraft. Adding a further route to Johannesburg within a relatively short time frame as well as less frequent air links to Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands are also under consideration.

Strategic relevance

The airport will extend the United Kingdom's capabilities to carry out airborne missions in the South Atlantic region, such as maritime patrols in accordance with international fishing agreements (e.g. ICCAT), counter-piracy missions along important trade routes, and also airlift operations notably into Southern Africa.

According to analysts the UK government's decision to finally go ahead with the airport, after long delays, seems to be driven in part by concerns over a continuing tense standoff with Argentina in the sovereignty dispute over the Falkland Islands. The island is about 3,812 miles (seven hours and 40 minutes flight time) from the Falklands. But, analysts say that was nevertheless an improvement over the present state of isolation from the UK for both St. Helena and the Falklands.

Bidding process

According to Private Eye magazine, all of the companies tendering for the job of building and running the airport had by late September, 2006 withdrawn from bidding for the project, which was to be funded by the Department for International Development (DfID). The local Access Office explained that the reasons were unclear but it seems the bidders considered the DfID has been unhelpful by not providing the possibility of on-site investigations in order to complete a detailed design before providing a fixed price for the project. According to the DfID's Director for Overseas Territories, his department remains committed to an airport for St Helena but at the time of the article there were no new bidders.

DfID restarted the procurement process to identify a suitable Design, Build and Operate contractor in October 2006. Capability Statements were received by DfID in March 2007 and four bidders were pre-approved for the Design, Build and Operator contract and a further three applicants have been pre-approved for the Air Service Provider contract. The applicants for the DBO visited the island for six months from June 2007 before submitting their final proposals, and as of January 2008 DfID is down to a shortlist of two bidders.

It was reported in The Guardian on 10 December 2008 that UK Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander had announced a "pause in negotiations over the St Helena airport contract", apparently related to the 2008 economic downturn.

The St. Helena Leisure Corporation (Shelco) was set up by Arup's Sir Nigel Thompson and Berwin Leighton Paisner's Robert Jones, planning to construct luxury resorts and a hotel to be run by Oberoi Hotels & Resorts in conjunction with the airport. The real estate was to be sold even before construction had started; the proposal was turned down by the local government and the DfID.

Environmental issues

Prosperous Bay Plain is one of the few remaining sites on Saint Helena that holds significant ecological diversity; according to a 2004 review by Atkins Management Consultants, the survival of numerous endemic species critically depend on preservation and protection of the location; it also is an important nesting site for the Wirebird, Saint Helena's national bird which is nearly extinct. Although Shelco still continues to be a major force pushing for the airport's construction, its co-founder Sir Nigel is the chairman of the environmental charity Campaign to Protect Rural England.


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