St Helena Government (SHG) gave the assurance after a 737-400 tilted over on to its wing when landing gear failed.
The incident raised questions about what might happen if the same thing happens once Comair begins flights to St Helena in early 2016.
An obstruction on the runway would close down the airport and leave the island cut off while it was cleared.
Richard Brown of Atlantic Star Airlines – which announced its first UK-St Helena flight the same day – said aviation rules mean only one aircraft would be allowed to be in-bound towards the island at any time, because of the danger of an obstruction preventing a landing.
An SHG spokesman said: “First of all, we are very glad that no-one was injured and that the incident was effectively managed.
“This type of incident is precisely why so much is invested in emergency planning and preparedness at airports – including at St Helena Airport.
“We have a highly trained and qualified Rescue & Fire Fighting Service, supported by our regular local emergency services – and the public will already be aware of the emergency exercises conducted as part of our airport certification programme.
“As part of this, a Disabled Aircraft Removal Plan (DARP) has been drawn up for St Helena Airport. Appropriate equipment to deliver the DARP will be in place before we begin airport operations, and staff are currently being trained in its use.”
The major incident exercise on Friday, 23October 2015 saw the airport emergency services working alongside “local” crews for the first time, tackling a simulated emergency.
Chief of police Trevor Botting said: “This exercise was challenging and whilst there are a number of points that will help us to improve the way we work, it demonstrated that the emergency teams from the airport and from St Helena more generally can work together in an operational context.”
Aerodrome manager Nigel Spackman said: “These exercises are an essential part of the airport certification process and are designed to give the regulator confidence in our ability to operate the airport safely and to identify areas for improvement.
“It was clearly proven that SHG emergency services and the airport teams can work together effectively, albeit that there are – as expected – areas where we can improve.”
An aircraft operated by Comair collapsed on to its side after landing at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.
The operator – which is due to commence flights to St Helena in early 2016 – reports that all 94 passengers and six crew were safely disembarked with no injuries after one of the plane’s front landing wheels gave way.
The main runway had to be shut down with flights diverted to an alternative – raising questions about what would happen if a similar incident occurred at St Helena’s airport, with its single runway.
The Boeing 737-400 had already safely touched down and was performing landing procedures on the runway when crew noticed an unusual vibration. The left landing gear then collapsed and the aircraft came to rest on its wing.
The extent of damage was not clear from pictures.
If a similar incident were to happen on St Helena, removing a plane with a damaged wing would be a major challenge.
Britain’s Daily Express website reported the incident under the sensationalist headline, BA flight emergency after landing gear collapses and wing ‘BREAKS OFF’ – above a picture showing the wing still clearly attached.
It quoted passenger Warren Mann, who took the pictures on this post, describing sparks coming from the wing as it appeared to come away from the aircraft.
The airline issued the following statement:
Johannesburg, 26 October 2015: Comair confirms that flight BA6234 a 10:35 departure from Port Elizabeth, with 6 Crew and 94 Passengers on board, was involved in an incident on landing at OR Tambo International Airport today.
We can confirm that all passengers and crew safely disembarked with no reported injuries. Passengers have been taken to the terminal building where staff are currently on hand assisting them and Comair offered all passengers counselling following the incident.
The incident involving a Boeing 737-400, registration ZS-OAA experienced a failure with the landing gear shortly after touching down. The aircraft was on the runway for a short period performing standard landing procedures when the crew noticed an unusual vibration which was followed shortly by the collapse of the left landing gear. ACSA emergency services were dispatched and responded to the scene immediately and assisted passengers and crew to safely disembark.
After the relevant authorities did their preliminary investigation, Comair received clearance to remove the aircraft and will be delivering all baggage to the passengers.
Comair would like to extend an apology to affected passengers for any undue stress and inconvenience. The safety of or passengers and crew is our top priority and Comair and the relevant authorities will be conducting the necessary investigation over the coming days.
Britain’s Express newspaper misreported the incident as a “terrifying” emergency landing:
Monthly flights between St Helena and Ascension Island have been negotiated, after months of discontent over the vital link being excluded from the original deal with winning contractor Comair. Each month, of the the airline’s Saturday flights from Johannesburg will land at St Helena and then continue on to Ascension for an overnight stop, before a return flight on the same route. Executive councillor Lawson Henry had led angry calls for a way to be found for Saints working on Ascension and the Falklands to be able to fly home without expensive detours of many thousands of miles. Ascension Island Government acknowledge support from Governor Mark Capes and Enterprise St Helena in applying pressure for the link to be provided.
Weekly flights between St Helena and Johannesburg will operate every Saturday, the island’s government has confirmed. Comair Ltd has signed a contract to operate the service with a dedicated Boeing 737-800 aircraft in British Airways livery. It will offer both business class and economy seating on the five-hour flight.
Construction of the island’s first airport is due for completion by 26 February 2016.
The Mantis group has also been named as the preferred bidder to run a new hotel being set up by the island government at numbers 1 to 2, Main Street in Jamestown.
St Helena Government has issued the following question-and-answer guide:
Q. Who is Comair?
A. Comair is a commercial airline that has successfully operated in South Africa since 1946. It is best known for operating British Airways flights in the Southern African region, and for its low cost airline, kulula.com.
Q. Why choose this airline?
A. Comair is an established airline with a long and successful history, and was chosen as St Helena’s air service provider following a comprehensive tender process. Comair will provide unparalleled access for Saints to the outside world with links through Johannesburg to London, Paris, Frankfurt, New York, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many more international and regional destinations.
Q. Where are they headquartered?
A. Comair’s headquarters are in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Q. What does the agreement with Comair commit them to?
A. The agreement commits Comair to providing a weekly service each Saturday from Johannesburg to St Helena and back. The aircraft will be capable of carrying up to 120 passengers and a limited amount of cargo.
Q. What term does the agreement stipulate?
A. The agreement will be for an initial period of three years, with potential for up to two extensions of two years each, giving a maximum term of up to seven years.
Q. When will the air service to St Helena commence?
A. The first scheduled flight from Johannesburg to St Helena is earmarked for late February 2016. Naturally, this date is dependent on the final certification and operational readiness of St Helena Airport.
Q. Which aircraft type will Comair use for St Helena services?
A. Comair proposes to use a brand new Boeing 737-800 aircraft, fitted out in British Airways livery.
Q. Can Comair carry special needs passengers, including wheelchair customers and stretcher cases?
A. Yes, Comair provides for the carriage of special needs passengers, including but not limited to wheelchairs, unaccompanied minors and customers with other special needs.
Comair will provide for the transportation of Medivac cases, stretcher cases through the certification process, updating its policies for this specific route accordingly.
Q. Does this mean that patients will now be treated in Johannesburg?
A. This is still being considered and it is too early to say at this point. Johannesburg has world class hospitals, and this will need to be weighed against transferring patients on a short connecting flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
Further information will follow.
Q. When will the first Comair test flight take place?
A. Any requirement for test flights will be set by the regulator. Comair will develop a flight simulator for St Helena to assist with pilot training.
Q. Is a visa required to visit St Helena?
A. No, but visitors to St Helena will wish to view the SHG website at www.sainthelena.gov.sh
Q. What will be the Hub?
A. Flights will originate from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. OR Tambo Airport is the main international airport in South Africa and provides much better connections to other destinations than the smaller Cape Town Airport can offer.
Q. How many flights per week?
A. Initially flights will be once a week. Increased frequency will be considered if there is sufficient demand.
Q. Has the flight schedule been finalised?
A. The exact timing of the flight schedule is still under discussion, but there will be an early morning departure from Johannesburg to St Helena, a one hour turnaround time in St Helena and an arrival into Johannesburg in the early evening. This timing will allow seamless connections to a range of international destinations.
Q. What is the flight time between Johannesburg and St Helena?
A. The flight time from Johannesburg to St Helena is estimated at five and a half hours and from St Helena to Johannesburg at four hours and forty five minutes. The difference in times is caused by the normal prevailing winds.
Q. How many passengers can the aircraft accommodate?
A. The aircraft has a full seating capacity of around 162 seats, but the number of passengers on flights to and from St Helena is likely to be limited to around 120, due to weight requirements when landing at St Helena Airport.
Q. How much cargo can the aircraft carry?
A. The aircraft has no palletised cargo capability, but a limited amount of cargo can be loaded by hand. But depending on the number of passengers, the aircraft can carry from around one tonne to around five tonnes of cargo.
Q. What will my baggage allowance be?
A. Club Class (Business) – 2 bags @ up to 23kg each
Traveller Class (Economy) – 1 bag @ up to 23kg
Q. What will be the flight turnaround time at St Helena Airport?
A. It will take approximately one hour to turn around the flight at St Helena Airport and return to Johannesburg.
Q. What day of the week will flights operate?
A. Comair will provide a single weekly return flight on a Saturday.
Q. Will passengers from St Helena be able to catch connecting flights at Johannesburg on the same day?
For inbound flights to St Helena, and depending on passengers’ time of arrival in Johannesburg, overnight accommodation may be necessary. There are a number of hotels within minutes of OR Tambo airport.
Q. When will bookings open for sale and where can I buy my tickets?
A. Bookings will open for sale towards the end of this year, 2015. A ticket can be purchased by a variety of means, including ba.com, Comair’s call centre and international and online travel agencies. Arrangements will also be put in place for purchase on St Helena. Further details on purchase options will be available later this year.
Q. Is there any guidance on the price of a return ticket between Johannesburg and St Helena?
A. SHG, in consultation with Comair, is in the process of determining the final pricing structures. The aim is to provide very competitive prices for Saints and visitors wishing to travel to and from St Helena.
Indicative return ticket prices are estimated to be around £500 to £600. But this is subject to agreement and confirmation following discussions between Comair and SHG. And ticket prices will vary, as is normal, subject to time of booking, demand and seasonal variations.
Q. What if I want to take a particular item on the plane?
A. This will be guided by the conditions of carriage of Comair. We will be publishing general guidance prior to tickets going on sale.
Q. Will there be services to Ascension Island?
A. It is unlikely that Comair will provide services to Ascension Island, due to a combination of reasons, including aircraft availability and the hours that pilots are allowed to fly. The Ascension Island Government is currently looking at options for separate provision of return services from St Helena to Ascension.
More information on this will follow.
Q. Will this mean that Saints on Ascension and the Falklands will need to travel to the UK then to Johannesburg before they can travel to St Helena?
A. This would be the route if anyone on Ascension or the Falkland Islands chose to use the scheduled weekly flight via Johannesburg.
But as stated above, Ascension Island Government is investigating options for the provision of services from Ascension to St Helena.
Note also that the RMS St Helena will serve Ascension and St Helena until June 2016 (4 months after commercial flights to St Helena are due to commence).
Further information will follow.
Q. Will there be direct flights to and from the UK?
A. Flights to the UK will require a change of aircraft at OR Tambo International Airport. There are many airlines operating out of this airport that can provide onward travel to London at very competitive prices, including British Airways, Emirates, Virgin and South African Airways.
Q. What happens if the Comair aircraft has a technical problem?
A. Contingency plans are in place and Comair would, if necessary, provide a backup plane from its fleet.
In addition, Comair will keep a stock of the most commonly required spare parts at St Helena Airport, ensuring that routine repairs can be rectified on St Helena. Comair will have an engineer on each flight capable of carrying out these repairs.
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.
A South African airline operator has been named the favourite to provide an air service for St Helena when its first airport opens early in 2016.
But Comair, which also operates budget flights as kulula.com, will only offer flights to Johannesburg in South Africa – despite strong calls for a direct service to Europe.
Potential tourism operators, including SHELCO, the company behind a planned eco resort on the island, had warned that flights from the UK were vital to their plans.
A rival bidder, Atlantic Star, also said that time-pressured tourists would be likely to holiday in resorts they could reach in a single flight, such as Barbados, rather than change planes to reach St Helena.
St Helena Government has said only that Comair is the preferred bidder. It did not say whether the firm was expected to operate the island route under the kulula brand.
kulula.com was named Best Low Cost Airline in international Airline Excellence Awards run by the website AirLineRatings.com in December 2014.
The site’s editor in chief, Geoffrey Thomas, said: “kulula is a breath of fresh air in the African market, combining safety, technology and humour. That airline brings fun to travel whilst delivering outstanding value.”
The announcement of Comair as preferred bidder was made by St Helena Government and the UK’s Department for International Development in a statement on 16 March 2015.
It said: “Comair is a South African aviation and travel company offering scheduled and non-scheduled airline services within South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands.
“Managed and owned by South Africans through its listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Comair has been operating successfully in South Africa since 1946.
“The company operates under its low-fare airline brand, kulula.com, as well as under the British Airways livery as part of its licence agreement with British Airways.
“Comair is proposing a weekly flight between Johannesburg (O.R. Tambo International Airport, formerly known as Johannesburg International Airport) and St Helena, using a Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
“The flight time from Johannesburg to St Helena will be about four and a half hours.
“Through Comair’s partnerships with numerous international airlines, the St Helena air service will offer connections to the international route network, via Johannesburg, to destinations such as London, Amsterdam, Paris, Sydney and Hong Kong.
“SHG and DFID will be holding detailed discussions with Comair over the next few weeks and will make a formal and more detailed announcement once these have been concluded.
“This marks a very positive step for St Helena in working with an airline that has such a long track record of successful operations, and which provides an excellent gateway to the rest of the world, including the UK.”