St. Helena: The Tiny, Remote Island With the Expensive Airport
Two years ago, a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean got its first airport — perhaps the world’s most obscure airport. It was expensive, but can St. Helena thrive?
Your average flight from Washington, D.C. to St. Helena Island, located in one of the most remote parts of the world, would be a very arduous affair, a flight that would take nearly two full days, and at least three distinct layovers along the way — first in Ghana, then in Johannesburg, then a refueling stop in Namibia — before you got to your destination.
If there’s a delay at any of the three stops, it might compromise the entire trip, because if you don’t make your connecting flight, you’re screwed. And once you’re there, you’re not leaving for a while. I’m endlessly fascinated by these far-off connections, these obscure airports that few people would ever think to travel to — and St. Helena is somehow more hopelessly obscure than the rest.
But you’re going to know a lot about it by the time you finish reading this piece—about an island that you’ll likely never visit unless you have a whole lot of extra time, disposable income, or a sense of adventure.
The amount that it cost the British government to put an airport on the island of St. Helena, the equivalent of $374 million at the time the project was completed in October of 2017. The airport has only been active for just about two years and only has a handful of flights it makes over an entire month, mostly to South Africa. The project took 13 years to complete and faced repeated delays to get to that point, but St. Helena finally has an airport.
Why an expensive airport in St. Helena is necessary, even if it barely gets used
There was a time when I was a kid that a new McDonald’s location in a small town, especially one miles from the nearest freeway, was seen as a good omen about the town’s economic prospects. Clearly if it’s big enough to carry a McDonald’s, it’s big enough to earn a dot on the map, right?
On a more global scale, an airport is kinda like that. Generally, it signifies a demand high enough for long-haul travel that a quick way to get to a big city is necessary. In many cases, it implies a scale of population deserving of a place for commercial planes to land and pick people up, even if the connecting flight is far more consequential than the one from your little neck of the woods.
On the other hand, there’s also a general necessity for airports in places that are so remote that are possibly too small for even a McDonald’s — that without such access, that island or city on top of a mountain would be isolated from the rest of the world.
Which brings me to St. Helena. A volcanic island located about 1,200 miles off the southwestern African coast, it’s one of the world’s most remote islands, with a population of slightly more than 4,500 people that generally identify as British. At 47 square miles, the British-owned territory is a little bit smaller than Washington, D.C. — a city with a similarly set size, but with 155 times the number of people. (That said, it still has a larger population than three other British-owned territories in the Atlantic, the better-known Falkland Islands and the equally obscure Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha — the latter two St. Helena is generally grouped with.)
This island is incredibly obscure, and mostly only comes up in the history books as a result of the fact that Napoleon, after his second stint as French emperor, was exiled there after surrendering to the British in 1815, and died on the island in 1821.
Since then, the island, like the other British territories, has remained a key strategic piece of land.
But the lack of air travel to the island was a problem. See, getting mail and supplies to the island required the use of a Royal Mail Ship called the RMS St. Helena, a vessel that traveled out of Cape Town to the island for nearly 30 years. And it was the kind of cruise that required a real commitment: Once you left Cape Town, you were basically committed to the ship’s three-week schedule as it traveled to St. Helena and Ascension Island, located 800 miles away. And the ship was fairly utilitarian — we’re not exactly talking a Carnival cruise line here.
“By the ship’s schedule, passengers must stay on the island of St Helena for at least 8 nights,” the website CruiseMapper explained. “It’s obviously not for everyone but remains an itinerary unlike any other.”
On top of all that, the British government had strategic reasons for needing to put an airport on the island. The Falkland Islands, while close to South America, operates from a place of weakness due to the fact that British ownership of the land is disputed by Argentina — and even became the subject of an invasion attempt in 1982. If something were to happen to the Falkland Islands, the British government would need a strategic resource somewhat nearby, and Antarctica probably isn’t the ticket. And there’s always the isolation factor, as cited in this 2011 UPI article: By putting an airport on St. Helena, it makes it easier for the Falkland Islands to reach another part of the the British empire, even one as far away as St. Helena.
Finally, there’s the potential for tourism or other economic industries to flourish with an airport. Right now, only about one plane visits St. Helena each week, but the airport allows for more than that, of course — and if planned correctly, it could make the island more self-sustainable. Which means that someday, the British government could stop paying subsidies to St. Helena.
And all of that explains why the British government has invested more than a quarter-billion pounds into an airport that, at this point in time, nobody uses. Ever hear of Brexit? Call this “Brentrance.”
“Here on St. Helena, there is a promising future for holidays hinging on Napoleon, certainly up to 2021, the bicentenary of the emperor’s death.”
— Thierry Lentz, the head of Fondation Napoleon, explaining to The Guardian how interest in the iconic political leader could help boost tourism to the island country in the coming years, especially as the island gets an airport of its own and the 200th anniversary of his death nears.
Five incredibly fascinating airports in odd parts of the world
- Barra Airport, Scotland. Located on the northern tip of the Scottish island, this airport has an odd feature that really stands out in the modern day: Some of its runways are literally located on the beach — and are affected by the tide! As Undiscovered Scotland notes, being able to land on the beach has the effect of making it easier to land on the island during times when wind is a problem.
- Courchevel Altiport, France. This airport, located in the middle of a French ski resort, has a runway that combines three things you don’t want in a runway: One, it’s really short; two, it’s often very snowy; and three, it’s on a gradient. The combination requires specialized training for pilots to even land at the airport. Despite this, the airport draws in about 10,000 passengers a year, many of whom come in by helicopter.
- Lukla Airport, Nepal. This airport, also known as Tenzing-Hillary Airport, frequently shows up on TV shows about most dangerous airports, in part because the airport, located near Mount Everest and mostly serving the mountain’s many hikers, seemingly combines every possible issue that an airport can face, including wind shear, mountainous terrain, and a short runway.
- Qamdo Bangda Airport, Tibet. Unlike Lukla Airport, Qamdo Bangda has a runway well-suited for its use case — and then some. In fact, the airport’s 3.5-mile-long runway is the longest in the world, and it actually needs it, as the area’s high altitudes mean that larger planes need more runway space to land.
- Don Mueang International Airport, Thailand. You know something that golf courses and airport runways have in common? They’re generally really long, and this Bangkok airport offers a direct comparison point of this issue — because there is a golf course right in the middle of two runways at the airport. ”You’re teeing off and there’s literally an aeroplane going up 20 yards away,” one player said of the unusual dynamic.
The hard part about introducing air service to an incredibly remote part of the world? Convincing people to go there
St. Helena is far from nailing down its status as an oddball vacation hotspot, despite the fact that so much money has been invested into its airport.
Recently, the aviation website FlightGlobal reported that around 3,800 visitors came to the island in 2018 — slightly higher than projected totals were for that year, but far below the long-term projections of a tourism industry that draws as many as 30,000 visitors a year.
There are a few reasons for this. First off, flights are expensive, and since they’re only coming into town around once a week at this point, they’re fairly inconvenient for vacationers. (The possibility of a regular flight from the Falkland Islands to St. Helena has yet to materialize, in part due to limitations on aircraft size at the airport.) Secondly, local accommodations aren’t cheap, either, which is sort of what naturally happens when your island is located more than a thousand miles from any natural source of supplies.
Thirdly, there are naturally problems that arise from the fact that it’s an airport on a tiny island. If some problem affects the runway, it’s likely going to be difficult to fix. But the biggest problem facing the tiny airport involves weather issues such as wind — an issue that has ensured that the airport has already made the list of “most dangerous runways” by the aviation magazine Airport Technology, while also giving the airport a fairly high rate of delay of 8 percent, per FlightGlobal.
This comes with the territory. Ascension Island’s airport, a World War II-era relic jointly operated by the U.S. and British Air Forces that has one of the longest runways in the world, has faced issues in recent years with potholes in its runway that have at times prevented people from leaving the island. Meanwhile, Falkland Islanders are actually well-aware of problems with wind, which have at times been so bad that local residents have called for the airport — which itself cost £215 million ($224 million) to be built in 1985 — to be moved somewhere else on the island.
But a big factor, ultimately, is that not many people are even aware the island exists and is even accepting tourists. Sheer awareness that there’s this island in the middle of the South Atlantic that once housed one of history’s most famous leaders is only going to help St. Helena win over travelers. But once the mixture of awareness leads to higher demand, it’s possible the tiny island might just have its big breakthrough with tourists.
“Balancing the economics of these flights is a serious challenge as due to its remoteness and the concomitant logistics issues, fuel at the island is extremely expensive, as are all other aspects of aircraft handling due mainly to the very low passenger traffic volume,” noted Rodger Foster, CEO of the South African airline Airlink, in an interview last year with Airline Ratings.
It’s a chicken and egg problem, and one that will only be solved if something hatches.
I can’t predict how successful St. Helena will be in its efforts to convince the world to make multiple connections just to travel to it. Certainly, it’s a beautiful-looking island, one of the world’s most unique, and one that has interesting tourist destinations, such as Jacob’s Ladder, a 699-step behemoth of a staircase that was once surrounded by vertical railways intended to deliver goods from the top of the hill to the valley and vice-versa.
It doesn’t produce much in the way of goods these days. Basically all it has to sell is the idea of itself. And with the RMS St. Helena having been decommissioned basically as soon as flights started out of St. Helena Airport, there’s no turning back. It’s a fight for self-sustainability through flight.
But the territory, and by extension the British government, effectively made a big bet on planes at a time when flying a trip to somewhere so remote is seen as a major luxury. Some will take advantage of that luxury, of course, but it’s growing increasingly controversial in some circles, due to the growing notoriety of “flight guilt,” which directly associates concerns about climate change with the propensity to travel for purposes of leisure.
The concept, which gained currency in Sweden and has a prominent advocate in the form of Greta Thunberg, may or may not take off on a global scale, but if it does, parts of the world that rely on tourism — specifically, the kind of look-at-our-natural-resources tourism that an island like St. Helena might rely on — will suffer. It’s not only a source of natural tension, but it’s an ironic one.
I don’t have an answer for this problem, and I’m not clear how big of a problem it really is. But I do think that it’s a big side effect that deserves serious consideration.
But if you can get past it, are willing to spend nearly two days traveling both ways, and have a couple of weeks at work you can afford to take off, maybe St. Helena might be worth checking out. I hear the airport is brand new.
Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. You’ve possibly run into one of my pieces on Motherboard, Atlas Obscura, OneZero, The Outline, or Neatorama.
This piece is adapted from a piece on Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet. Here’s the original version.