Direct flights between Europe, St Helena and Cape Town remain a possibility, even though the island’s government has chosen to work with an airline that will link only with Johannesburg.
A report on an aviation intelligence website says that the rival Atlantic Star is still considering operating on its own routes – including to Ascension.
The naming of the South African firm Comair as preferred bidder has been greeted with disappointment because the island has no established links with Johannesburg – feared for its reputation as a “murder capital”.
Saints have been settling in Cape Town for more than 100 years and a strong network of support has built up, especially for islanders travelling to the Mother City for medical care.
When the UK-based Atlantic Star went public with its plan two years ago it said it could operate without a government subsidy.
The report on the ch-aviation website said: “Start-up Atlantic Star Airlines has also expressed an interest in connecting the remote island with London using a B757-200 leased from Icelandair.
“The carrier is also planning to offer flights to Georgetown Wideawake [on] Ascension Island and Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands, as well as flights to West and South Africa.”
There has been no public statement from Atlantic Star yet.
St Helena Government has been quoted in the media saying it would have an open skies policy – meaning it would not prevent other operators from flying into St Helena International airport, even in competition with its own partner airline.
But industry observers say that for a rival airline to pay its own way, without government funding, there would have to be more tourist accommodation on the island than is expected by 2016.
The Shelco plan for a five-star eco resort on the island is apparently on hold, and a scheme by the Mantis group to convert Ladder Hill Fort into a boutique hotel has so far come to nothing.
St Helena Government pushed forward its own scheme to convert Georgian offices in Jamestown into a hotel to try to make sure there will be tourist accommodation on the island once its airport opens in early 2016.
But it is thought the Main Street hotel would not bring enough tourists to make an unsubsidised service take off.
Ironically, the UK media has speculated that Mantis and Shelco were both waiting for confirmation of direct flights to Europe before starting work on their plans.
Atlantic Star founder Richard Brown said in 2013 that wealthy tourists would not be willing to change planes to visit St Helena when destinations such as Barbados could be reached on a single flight.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) was long believed to favour a direct service only to South Africa. Media reports spoke of flights to Cape Town, though changing plans at Johannesburg instead would cut down the overall journey time to Europe.
Reaction among Saints and island-watchers has been uneasy, especially over the news that the service would operate out of O.R. Tambo International Airport.
One source said that it “tops the world airports league for most lost and pilfered luggage.”
But a comment received by St Helena Online from a writer under the name Latinflyer says: “O.R. Tambo International Airport Johannesburg has been awarded the top spot as the best airport [of] 2014 in Africa and is handling more than 17 Million passengers each year.”
Island businessman John Turner “I’d like to know what will happen to medical referrals. Will they fly to Jo’burg then fly to Cape Town, or will we move to a hospital in Jo’burg?
“The people who’ve invested in accommodation business for Saints in Cape Town must be pretty brassed off.”
One expert consulted by St Helena Online said the choice of Comair as preferred bidder was no surprise: “It was the worst-kept secret that DFID ever had. They have been talking to Comair for the past 10 years.
“Comair themselves have done nothing proactive whatsoever to express or advance any interest they might have in St Helena. So far as is known, they have never sent anybody to the island, or been involved in any way other than to receive the repeated overtures of DFID and SHG to become involved.
“It is certain that DFID/SHG would have lobbied hard for Cape Town to be the selected hub, but such representations have clearly failed.
“Absolutely NOBODY on-island wants to go to Johannesburg: Saints hate the place. Who wouldn’t be wary of the murder capital of the world?”
Ascension does not appear to be included on the flight plan for Comair, and it is thought there may be problems making Wideawake Airfield suitable for civilian aircraft. It is not clear how Saints would travel to and from jobs on Ascension – a vital part of St Helena’s economy.
South Africa’s Comair to begin talks with St Helena Government – ch-aviation website
South African firm is first choice as island airline
St Helena airport: first plane to land in July 2015