St Helena will lose out to luxury destinations such as The Maldives and Barbados if it does not have direct flights from Europe, one of the men behind a potential airline for the island has warned.
The team setting up Atlantic Star Airlines wants to fly from London to St Helena and on to Cape Town, with a fuelling stop in southern Europe.
But that means widening the airfield currently being built on Prosperous Bay Plain or using a “compromised” aircraft, according to Captain Richard Brown – and there are doubts about whether the British government will agree to the work.
However, there has been unofficial word from the island that the upgrade could be funded from cost savings on other parts of the project.
The alternative is for travellers to fly to South Africa and then catch a connecting flight to the island – but Richard told St Helena Online that wealthy tourists would not do that when other islands could be reached on a single flight.
Richard, co-founder and director of Atlantic Star, said: “In order to build a sustainable economy, ultimately flights from Europe will be needed.
“Our experience within the aviation industry is that very few people will catch two flights to go on vacation.
“Everybody knows how long it takes to get to Cape Town [from Europe]. You add on a minimum of a two-hour turnaround and then another four-and-a-half-hour flight out to the island, and you are only going to have tourists who are particularly determined to visit St Helena.
“The reality is that St Helena will have to compete with other destinations such as the Maldives, such as Mauritius, such as Barbados, such at Antigua, such as St Lucia – which are all fantastic and have their own on-island experiences to offer.
“The thing about all of those destinations is that they are all served directly from London on a single flight.
“So if St Helena is to compete in that market place for the sort of customers that go to those sorts of destinations, St Helena needs to have direct flights.”
Nigel Kirby, who is managing the airport project at the UK’s Department for International Development, did not appear to offer encouragement to the Europe lobby when he spoke to the Friends of St Helena in late 2012.
At the Friends’ annual meeting on 8 June 2013, Ian Mathieson said: “When we had Nigel Kirby here in the autumn he was making it fairly clear that Johannesburg was the front runner.”
Richard Brown said: “We are in interested in operating in and out of South Africa. We see is as part of the A-Star route network that will operate from the UK, down to the island and on to Cape town.
“Secondary to that we can see potential for adding another route to Johannesburg within a relatively short time frame.”
He said the company had a vision of offering wealthy tourists a week on St Helena and a second week in South Africa, with a direct flight back to London.
“People can go from a chilled-out week on the island to something again very exciting and different and unusual on the Western Cape.”
The company wants to use Boeing 757 aircraft, which are no longer manufactured but would still have a long service life.
“At the present time the airfield specification is not sufficiently robust to take a 757 operation, and DfID are currently reviewing whether the airfield will be upgraded to support those 757 operations.
“The shoulders on the sides of the runway will need to be slightly wider and the taxiway will have to be slightly wider.
“You are talking about a relatively small change. But the 757 is the best aircraft out there to provide a European link to the island.
“The Boeing 737 and Airbus A319 would also have this capability but they are far more compromised in terms of having to put extra fuel tanks in the belly of the aeroplane, which removes space for baggage and for cargo.
“We see cargo as a significant part of the operation – potentially to aid island exports, particularly in terms of fisheries.”
Importing some goods by air would also be important, he said. “The airline has to be a viable commercial entity.”
He said London was the ideal departure point. “It’s still Europe’s biggest single economic centre and that means there’s a lot of high-net-worth individuals looking for interesting and exclusive experiences.
“It’s also logical because it’s the destination of choice for Saints.
“They’ll be prepared to put up with flying to Cape Town or Johannesburg and catching a connection flight to get themselves to London.
“They will accept it, and people will do it for business. But people won’t catch two flights to go on vacation.”
Click the pic to see a video on the airport project