St Helena airport costing £285m can't open because it's too windy

James Nickerson
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The island has just 4,200 inhabitants (Source: St Helena Tourism)

The South Atlantic island of St Helena is one of the hardest-to-reach locations in the world; it takes a five-and-a-half day voyage on the RMS Saint Helena.

So naturally, there was a lot of excitement in town when it was decided an airport was going to be built.

That's been met with the same frustration now that it has been found that it can't be used because planes landing there are blown off course, the National Audit office found.

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The development was decided in 2010, and is one of the largest investments made in an overseas territory, famous for Napoleon's exile after the Battle of Waterloo.

The remote island of 4,200 inhabitants was hoping to get a boost from tourism, with Comair, a South African company operating British Airways flights, having announced it would launch weekly flights from Johannesburg.

But safety concerns have largely put those plans on hold. While the Department for International Development (DfID) estimated to give the island a total of £667m by 2043, when subsidies are due to end, the delay at the airport could push that up.

It's still cheaper than a subsidy of £834m to commission successive replacements of RMS Saint Helena. though. (And a far cry from the billions of runways at Gatwick and Heathrow).

But DfiD remains concerned that without the airport, the overseas territory will not be able to attract tourists that will help push the island toward self-sufficiency.

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"Estimating the likely costs and benefits of a project such as this is an inherently difficult task, particularly with a limited number of precedents for building an airport in a remote location," said Amyas Morse, head of NAO.

"The year in which DfiD stops paying an annual subsidy to the St Helena government, as well as the total subsidy paid, will depend on whether the estimates of, for example, tourist numbers and how much they spend, are exceeded or missed.

"The airport’s planned opening date in May 2016 has been postponed as outstanding safety concerns are addressed, potentially adding to the project’s cost and delaying its benefits."

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