One of the most awaited airport openings this year was that in the island of Saint Helena.
This was not because of the size of the facility or because the number of destinations it will serve, but because it represents the first direct air link to one of the most remote and unique islands in the World.
The tiny British territory of Saint Helena is known primarily for having been the place of exile and death of Napoleon Bonaparte, yet, this South Atlantic island has a trove of natural and cultural attractions that remains, to this date, quite out of reach. The three weeks that the postal boat, the island's only regular link to the outside World, takes to get there from South Africa are a powerful obstacle to all but the most motivated and time-rich travellers.
The entry into service of the new airport was meant to solve this and open up new business opportunities. In an article on CNN I explained how the locals, popularly known as "Saints", had piled many hopes on the new infrastructure...Two airlines were almost ready to start services to the island: Comair (a British Airways franchise) with a weekly flight from Johannesburg, and Atlantic Star Airlines and airline created with the sole purpose of linking the island to the UK with seasonal flights (the aircraft were to be operated by TUI).
This will have to wait.
The island did, indeed, receive its first flight: a Comair Boeing 737-800 landed there on...but, it was precisely during this first landing that a serious wind shear issue was detected on the main runway, that aircraft approach from the North (you can see in the video below what happened when that Comair flight was coming in to land!).
This issue will need to be solved before the airport can start to operate regularly with passenger flights.
Although there is a second runway that can be approached, from the South, without the wind shear issues, it experiences tailwinds, which means that incoming aircraft need a longer runway. This means that most airliners, such as the Boeing 737-800s that were going to serve the island, can not land there with the usual load. Only some medevac flights, using smaller aircraft have been using the airport so far. Operating smaller aircraft on this route, though, would be uneconomical for any airline.
Wind shear is also an issue at airports such as Gibraltar and Funchal, in the island of Madeira, but those airports have been operation for a long time and somehow way have been found to deal with the situation. Being a new airport, though, the Saint Helena case is a bit different and requires a period of data collection and analysis.
Richard Brown, CEO of Atlantic Star Airlines confirmed that all plans for new services to and from the UK are currently on hold and ticket sales have been suspended, while further evaluations are conducted. "We are certainly disappointed with this situation, but we won't give up, we remain committed to the project, we believe in it!", he stated when asked about the future.