St Helena Government also said there was “nothing new” in a comment about problems with the island’s terrain, quoted in UK media reports.
The UK’s Independent newspaper quoted project director Janet Lawrence saying: “Due to the unknown nature of building an airport on the island’s uneven terrain, changes in design had to be made to facilitate that.”
One pilots’ forum member said: “Would Ms Lawrence now cease the ‘spin’ and tell everyone just exactly what the nature of the problem is?
“Something of an apparently fundamental nature that would delay opening the airport at this late stage could be seen as the sign of a enormous c**k up.”
The story blew up within days of a formal deadline for Basil Read to complete the construction of the airport – 26 February 2016.
The official opening was put back to St Helena’s Day in May after the first test flight to Prosperous Bay Plain found significant problems with navigation and landing aids.
No announcement has ever been made about extending the hand-over date in Basil Read’s contract.
The first calibration flights resulted in high-tech VHF radio equipment and antennae having to be moved.
Two months have now passed without news of success from a second round of flights to test the relocated landing aids.
The silence prompted questions from members of the Professional Pilots Rumour Network (PPRuNe). Then the Independent newspaper ran its story under the headline, St Helena Airport Open, But Where’s The Planes?
A re-hash of the article then appeared on the Mail Online, the biggest English language news website in the world, visited by more than 14 million browsers in January 2016.
Chris Pickard, the island’s new tourism director, was upbeat about the impact of the media coverage, saying such stories attract the attention of potential tourists (see separate article).
The reports picked up on an open letter from Richard Brown of Atlantic Star airline, saying the “complexity” of remaining work on the airport meant it could not start selling tickets for its first charter flight from the UK to St Helena.
Its first flight had already been put back from Easter to the UK summer.
There has been no word of a start date for weekly flights from Johannesburg by the South African airline Comair.
The question now is how difficult it will be to fix any remaining problems that have been identified – and who will do the work, and who is liable to pay for it.
Janet Lawrence’s comment about uneven terrain has been seen as a suggestion that the problems may involve fencing or equipment close to the steep and fragile cliffs around the airport.
But a statement from The Castle in Jamestown said otherwise:
“The UK Independent report references a conversation with Airport Director Janet Lawrence about the challenges of constructing an airport in such an isolated location and on such difficult terrain. She used examples such as the Open Channel [diverting water from the filled-in Dry Gut] and Rupert’s Wharf to illustrate the continual design process under this project.
“There is nothing new here, including about terrain, turbulence or the approach.
“Even after all these challenges, we are still aiming for 21 May 2016 for the official opening of St Helena Airport.
“Janet also reported on the Tony Leo show on 13 January that the calibration flights had done ‘just what it says on the box’.”
The statement said that project firm Basil Read had since been preparing paperwork required for the airport to be certified and cleared for commercial flights by the ASSI (Air Safety Support International).
The ASSI says it can take 40 working days to returned detailed findings on tests, “and we are still well within this timeframe,” said the government statement.
“The aviation industry is highly regulated and for obvious reasons. By the time of certification, there will have been hundreds of hours of flight simulations proving that flights into and out of St Helena Airport can be undertaken safely.
“An enormous amount has been achieved. Developing a world class facility for St Helena is a huge and complex project. We’re now on the home straight and all parties are working flat out to achieve certification and the opening of the airport for commercial flights at the earliest possible opportunity.”
One member of the pilots forum wrote: “If the airport doesn’t open perhaps it could be used as a penal colony for all the civil servants involved in the scheme, to be sent there to break up the concrete etc by hand.”