‘Saints’ honoured with their own airport at last


After years of vacillation the British Government has finally agreed to underwrite the cost of an airport on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena and has issued a Design, Build and Operate (DBO) contract for USD340 million. The 4000 islanders, known as 'Saints', who rely on an infrequent mail ship to leave and return to their British Overseas Territory home, will within four years have a much more frequent method of access and egress, as long as airlines can be convinced of the value of operating there. But the fact the DBO contractor is a South African company speaks volumes about the UK airport industry's inability to finance and build infrastructure, even on its own 'turf'.

  • The British Government has agreed to underwrite the cost of an airport on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, issuing a Design, Build and Operate (DBO) contract for USD340 million.
  • The airport will provide improved access and egress for the 4000 islanders, who currently rely on infrequent mail ships.
  • The airport is expected to boost the island's economy and tourism industry, with visitor numbers projected to increase from 800 per annum to 29,000.
  • The DBO contractor for the project is a South African company, highlighting the UK airport industry's inability to finance and build infrastructure.
  • The airport will feature a 1800m concrete runway, capable of accommodating aircraft such as the A320 and Boeing 737-800.
  • Operational support for the airport will come from Lanseria Airport in South Africa, which has expertise in handling commercial aircraft.

It was in Apr-2005 that Airport Investor Monthly last reported on the proposed new airport for the 16km x 8km island, at which time it appeared that the project might be about to enter the construction phase. But with the onset of the recession, it was postponed on several occasions.

One of the world's remotest islands

St Helena is one of the 13 remaining UK Overseas Territories, 16 degrees south of the equator, between Brazil and Angola, and one of the world's remotest islands, presently accessible only by sea from African ports or from Ascension Island, another British territory, 750 miles northwest. Located 1900km from Africa, Ascension Island is its nearest neighbour.

The passenger and supply ship RMS St Helena was due to reach the end of its working life in 2010 but its service has been extended out of necessity, operating between Cape Town and St Helena. The objective has been both to replace it, and to boost the island's economy, which presently is merely one of self-sustainment by providing an airport.

UK assistance to St Helena was then about GBP13 million per year but has since risen to GBP35 million out of a total of GBP60 million allocated annually to the South Atlantic Territories, which also comprises Ascension Island (which is populated almost exclusively by military and support personnel) and Tristan da Cunha to the south, which remains virtually inaccessible. These amounts include budgetary support to meet essential public services and to subsidise St Helena's dedicated shipping service.

Although it is never publicly stated, the intention of the present Coalition Government, which has taken a renewed interest in St Helena since it was elected in May-2010, is as much to take the island "off the books" of the UK taxpayer, as it is to provide overdue transport infrastructure. Fortunately, in this instance the two objectives are in unison as it is anticipated that the airport will multiply visitor numbers from around 800 per annum to 29,000, thus creating a self-sustaining tourism industry. Britain is almost as indebted as any of the economies currently making the news (Greece, Italy etc) if one takes into account the hidden amounts of debt in private finance initiative (PFI) transactions and collapsed pension funds, hence the need even to save amounts as relatively small as GBP35 million.

2250m runway called for

The original plan, put together by the London-based consultant Alan Stratford, called for a 2250m runway at Prosperous Bay Plain, on the eastern coast of the island; sufficiently adequate to support safe operation of A320 and B737-800 types. The British Department for International Development (DFID), which typically supports education and infrastructure in the Third World and war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and which is the only Department of State to have had its budget 'ring-fenced', was given the job of providing funding, subject to satisfactory bids for a DBO contract and an environmental impact assessment. According to the DFID at the time, "All private sector interest in St Helena will be considered on an equal footing."

The project also included technical advice to help establish regular scheduled air services and to support St Helena in reaping the economic benefits of air access for the island. Increased tourism and inward investment was expected to follow in the wake of the much improved access arrangements.

DFID clearly takes the project seriously. Within the last three months it has advertised for and appointed a "Private Sector Advisor" for the three South Atlantic Territories, with the clear implication that he or she will be expected to ensure St Helena at least begins to 'pay for itself' within two years, which rather runs contrary to its usual ethos.

For some time the frontrunner for the contract was an Italian company, Impregilo, based in Milan, and which has become the leading Italian construction and engineering business operating in the environmental sector, with a track record that includes the Kariba Dam in Zambia and Zimbabwe (1959) and the salvage of the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt (1968). That record does not include many airports, just four contracts, in Italy, Argentina and Bolivia and all in the 1980s/90s. The other bidder was South Africa's Basil Read but Impregilo won on the basis of 'best overall value'.

But then the British Government pulled back in light of the recent global economic turmoil. In Jan-2011, new design, build, operate and transfer bids were sought from both Impregilo and Basil Read, but only the South African group actually made an offer this time out.

DFID is funding the entire USD340 million (GBP200 million) project from UK taxpayers contributions, which will now involve a 3500sqm airport building and a 1800m concrete runway (down from 2250m), with, as previously proposed, a taxiway and apron able to cater for aircraft of a size equivalent to an A320, or a Boeing 737-800.

Impressive logistics

As with any airport development on a small island the logistics are impressive. The works will also include an eight-million cubic metre rock fill embankment through which a 750 metre-long reinforced concrete culvert will run, air traffic control and safety systems, a bulk fuel installation for six-million litres of diesel and aviation fuel and a 14km access road up the mountain to the airport site.

Temporary harbour facilities will also be developed to allow a roll-on/roll-off vessel to bring in materials from South Africa and Basil Read would also develop a temporary runway to enable the use of a C130-type aircraft to facilitate quicker access to the site. That runway should be developed within 18 months of the commencement of construction.

The contractors will need to bring in everything from food to the building materials needed for the development of the airport building, which, it is understood will be modelled on another airport of a similar size - that at Nelspruit in Mpumalanga province in South Africa.

New technology enables larger aircraft

A new technology, engineered material arresting system will allow the airport to receive larger aircraft on the short runway but does not explain the delight currently being shown in the Falkland Islands that the inhabitants there (who are largely self-sufficient now even though it is still a British Overseas Territory) will be able to reach the UK in 7.5 hours, about half the length of the current journey time. It is difficult to imagine any aircraft that is capable of flying ETOPs operations on that length of journey (approximately 7000 km) being able to use such a short runway, new technology or not. The originally conceived 2250m runway might have been more appropriate. There are approximately 400 'Saints' in the Falkland Islands but any air service would clearly not be designed specifically for them.

There may be some truth in the theory being promoted in the international media that the renewed desire to build the airport is somehow linked to the perceived need to have transport for British troops to the Falkland Islands again in the event of a second invasion by Argentina, which has been belligerent recently. There is no merchant marine left to do it by sea as in 1982.

The design phase commences immediately and construction could begin in May-2012. Most of the expertise will be derived from South Africa, but Basil Read has indicated that it will employ as many locals as possible in the building and the operation of the facility. (Impregilo had also sent senior representatives to St Helena to assess the capabilities of locals in that respect.)

Construction will take place over a 48-month period and operation of the airport will continue for 10 years in a contract valued at approximately USD57 million. The award has increased the size of Basil Read's order book to USD1.6 billion.

Lanseria Airport offers useful expertise

Operational support will come from Lanseria Airport, the privately operated Gauteng province facility to the north of Johannesburg, which, after languishing for several years, has been building up both domestic and international LCC services, as well as acting as a private/business jet airport for Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is unlikely St Helena will see many business jets, unless Sir Richard Branson decides to buy it, having lost some of his Necker (Caribbean) island to fire, but Lanseria's expertise will be useful for the type of commercial aircraft that it will see. Basil Read has a joint venture relationship with Lanseria Airport.

The St Helena Government itself sees the airport as key to improving logistics for its population and the diaspora that has moved overseas (mainly to Britain) that is greater than the indigenous population; and supporting economic development. It's most important goal is to tempt at least some of that diaspora back, either permanently, or occasionally with transferable funds.

St Helena will have to battle to attract tourists

After that, the secondary goal is to increase tourism. But who will come? A 1800m runway will not support intercontinental flights, especially as the nearest alternative airport is so far away. Tourists will, almost by necessity, come initially from South Africa (where St Helena will be pitched into tough competition with Mauritius and the Seychelles to attract them), possibly from Namibia, and then from Europe (even possibly Asia in time) via either of those places. It could feature as a two-centre vacation location, or a side trip, or as part of a fly-cruise programme. There is much work to be done. In the longer term it may be able to attract traffic from Latin America, especially Brazil, though again runway size will count in the equation, and the Government will be encouraged by the emergence of a 'string' of vacation islands down the western side of Africa, including the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde islands, that St Helena might possibly tap into.

The tourist infrastructure is of concern. There are hotels, bed & breakfast, guest house and self catering units available already, but they cater for 800 visits per annum not 30,000. Growth in residential infrastructure has to come rapidly and outside assistance will be needed.

The island is certainly an attractive place though it has little in the way of beaches, even fewer roads and its tourist offer momentarily majors on 'relaxation' far away from the daily throng, walking in the gentle hills. The attraction of more than 30 times the present level of visitors is almost oxymoronic to the aim of offering a tiny 'get-away-from-it-all' island. Its principal feature, for which it is known globally, attracting many visitors despite its remoteness, is the tomb of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who was exiled there. Current plans call for the airport to be operational by 2015, on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's arrival into final exile.

With that sort of pedigree it is perhaps a little surprising that Aeroports de Paris, through one or both of its engineering and management units, is not more involved here, or perhaps one of the smaller French airport operators that dabbles abroad, like Lyon or Nice. There is certainly the potential for quite a few French tourists to make the journey each year.

A nation of shopkeepers, but not airport builders

The country most notable in its absence is the UK itself. During the last five years, British companies have declined somewhat in importance on the global stage where airport construction is concerned, though it is still surprising not to read of companies such as Mott McDonald, Amey or Lagan having any involvement, even if some, like the aforementioned Stratford, and Atkins, which undertook an environmental audit in 2004, have been. As for British operators, they have virtually disappeared off the radar altogether where foreign projects are concerned, which surely must be a worry to the UK Government's Trade and Business departments.

As Napoleon himself famously said, 'England is a nation of shopkeepers', but he might have added not of airport builders or operators. At a demanding British Overseas Territory new build, green field airport, where skills could be put on show for the world to see, just where are the British?

Background information:

The British Government Project Memorandum can be found at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.dfid.gov.uk/pubs/files/st-helena-proj-memo.pdf

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