U.K. Wasted $360 Million on Island Airport in Atlantic Ocean, Panel Says

  • St. Helena’s ‘dangerous’ winds hamper tourist flight landings
  • Lawmakers call for accountability, remedy to make strip usable

The U.K. wasted 285 million pounds ($360 million) on an almost unusable airport in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a panel of lawmakers said on Wednesday.

Test flights in April to the landing strip on St. Helena, a British territory in the south Atlantic, revealed “dangerous wind conditions on the airport approach,” preventing the operation of regular commercial flights to the outpost, Parliament’s cross-party Public Accounts Committee said in an e-mailed report. The phenomenon, known as “wind shear,” was observed on the island as long ago as 1836 by the naturalist Charles Darwin.

“The government has an obligation to support St. Helena but a 285 million-pound white elephant serves neither its people nor the taxpayers footing the bill,” Committee Chairwoman Meg Hillier said in a statement. “The failure to undertake robust due diligence on this project is truly appalling. I also have serious concerns about the airport’s business case, which was marginal at best.”

The Department for International Development, which funded the project to support tourism and help the territory’s 4,100 residents become self-sufficient, has sought expert help to overcome the airport’s wind problems and “provide the best possible air service,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

St. Helena, where French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile in 1821 after being defeated by the British, attracts visitors to its “dramatic” scenery, “pristine” seas and “incredibly clear skies” the island’s government says on its website. Birdwatchers, fishing enthusiasts, hillwalkers and astronomers currently have to spend five days traveling to the islands by ship from South Africa and the airport plan projected a 30-fold increase in visitors to the island by 2042, the report said.

“It is staggering that the department commissioned and completed the St Helena airport before ascertaining the effect of prevailing wind conditions on landing commercial aircraft safely at St. Helena,” the panel said. “Over-egging prospective tourism growth may have made the business case stack up but, even then, the business case for building the airport was marginal at best. The projected expansion in tourist numbers also relies on air access for tourists, the achievability of which is uncertain given the current difficulties in landing aircraft safely.”

The panel urged the government to establish who is responsible for the failures in planning that led to the current situation. It also called on the Development Secretary Priti Patel to develop a costed strategy by April to bring the airport into commercial use.

“One of the first things the secretary of state did this summer was to take concrete actions to get the airport up and running and to ensure the lessons from this project are learnt,” the department said. “The Secretary of State is clear: we will deliver on what we promised for the island and we will identify failures to ensure they are held to account, redressed and not repeated.”

Eighteen flights have so far successfully landed at the airstrip, including three medical flights and more are due next week, the department said. The Royal Mail service ship that serves the island has had its service extended until the airport is operational.

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