Opening of $410m St Helena airport delayed “indefinitely”

The opening of an airport built by the UK government on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena has been delayed indefinitely over fears about its safety.

The airport, which has been under construction since 2012 and was to have opened last month, was commissioned by the Department for International Development (DFID) for a price of £285m ($410m).

The opening has been delayed by fears over wind shear, that is, sudden changes in the speed and direction of wind.

The airport was intended to make the island economically self-sufficient, principally by making it accessible to tourists. At present, the island, which is 2,000km from the nearest landmass, can be reached only after a five-day sea journey from South Africa.

In making its business case for the airport in 2011, the department commented that although the project was "high risk", it was worth going ahead with because of "the need to revive St Helena’s failing economy and reduce its heavy and increasing dependence on UK budgetary support".

A report on the airport was published yesterday (9 June) by the National Audit Office (NAO), the UK parliament’s financial watchdog. It commented that the island costs the DFID about £16.7m a year to fund, not counting the £2.7m required to run the Royal Mail Ship St Helena and £7.2m to help the island attract the skills it needed and to fund capital projects.

The airport was built on Prosperous Bay Plain, on the east side of the island. It has a 1,850m concrete runway and a 3,500 sq m terminal. The contractor was South African firm Basil Read, and it was procured on a build, operate, transfer basis.

The NAO comments that the delay in opening it would be likely to increase the final cost of the scheme. It said: "DFID and the St Helena Government are currently considering options for addressing the impact of difficult wind conditions on landing the aircraft safely.  The Department has not yet forecast the additional cost of each option."

St Helena has a population of 4,100, and only 150 hotel beds. DIFD has suggested that that it would attract about 30,000 tourists a year if an air link were to be established.

A video showing the wind shear warning system can be seen here.

Basil Read’s video of the construction can be seen here. 

The development will provide access to St Helena for commercial airlines for the first time.

The remote island – which lies approximated 1,150 miles (1,850km) off the west coast of Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean – has previously only been accessible by ship, in a journey that takes five days from South Africa.

DFID agreed to pay £285.5m to "design, build and operate" the airport, in a bid to improve the island’s accessibility and boost its tourism industry.

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