11 October 2021
Recently a number of questions have been asked about St Helena Airport (HLE) and air access to the Island in general. Over the last three weeks, St Helena Government’s (SHG) Sustainable Development Civil Aviation Team has provided answers to the frequently asked questions. This week’s final topic is:
- Week 3: Where flights can and can’t operate to from HLE
Johannesburg is still the best hub for Airlink to operate from
In the short term, flights should operate to Johannesburg as this is continental Africa’s largest hub airport (21.6m passengers handled in 2019 compared to 10.9m at Cape Town); has greater onward connectivity by other airline partners; and is expected to return to normality before Cape Town.
Many European and Gulf airlines have cut back on frequencies to Cape Town during the pandemic and this will continue until the market picks up. Meanwhile Johannesburg, being also the commercial centre, benefits from more airlines operating there and is expected to recover more quickly because it is less reliant on pure Visiting Friends and Family and tourism traffic.
In the longer term, the optimal schedule to deliver sustainable year-round tourism should be:
- March to October (southern hemisphere winter / European summer) – flights should continue to be operated from Johannesburg;
- October to March (southern hemisphere summer / European winter) flights should switch to operating from Cape Town, with any additional midweek services also being from Cape Town, allowing same origin- and destination-point travel for those customers interested in short-stay visits to St Helena.
A direct flight to London is not financially viable
In the short / medium term, flights from London would have a negative effect on the financial viability of the current Airlink schedule (when it restarts), caused by the rerouting of passengers by-passing the South African flight.
In 2019, 20% of the non-Saint tourist market originated from South Africa. If these travellers needed to fly to London to get to St Helena rather than take a direct flight to Johannesburg, they would lose the opportunity for dual-centre holidays.
In a post-pandemic world, we need to make it as easy as possible for travellers to arrive here – which means using Airlink.
Ticket prices for the South Africa route would be lower than a UK route, on a total journey basis from Europe to St Helena return.
There would not be enough year-round demand to fill an aircraft with a decent flight schedule (weekly) with the UK, meaning the service would lose money. The UK outbound demand is very seasonal with much lower demand in UK summer months – even less cost effective for a large aircraft such as the B757. Meanwhile, the smaller and lower-cost Airlink operation from South Africa has a much lower ‘breakeven point’, i.e. becomes profitable and self-sustaining with a weekly service. This means in the medium term, government subsidies should no longer be required to support the route.
A UK service would incur additional refuelling and crew costs. A service from London would need a transit stop (e.g. Accra) in both directions for fuel, with additional challenges in dealing with crew flying-time limitations. (Titan needs to carry a spare pilot crew – which adds to the flying costs).
Weather would also be an issue – for London flights, the forecast would need to be compiled a day earlier compared to flights originating from Southern Africa. Flight postponements (for the London service) may be at an airport (such as Accra) where the airline has no base or contractual relationship with suppliers, including maintenance organisations. In the event of a technical problem developing, passengers might need to overnight in Accra, which would be complicated and costly.
To sum up, in the short to medium term (and whilst St Helena builds itself up as a tourist destination), a UK-St Helena-UK route would not be economically viable for any aircraft operator unless it was heavily subsidised at a cost to SHG far greater than the Airlink subsidy. On average, it is around four times more expensive to operate a return flight from London compared to Johannesburg. This means passenger ticket prices would have to increase to cover the increased costs.
Ascension Island cannot be used to support a UK route
Under an agreement with HM Government, Ascension Island’s airfield is controlled by the United States military and is generally off-limits to commercial aircraft traffic.
St Helena currently benefits from a clause in this agreement that allows for a limited number of commercial domestic flights between Ascension and St Helena; however, this took many years to negotiate with the United States and is likely to prove difficult to change.
The lack of facilities to accommodate a diverted/grounded civil aircraft, coupled with a reluctance to accommodate civil aircraft, means Ascension is only useful from a diversionary/emergency perspective if there is a weather (or other) issue at HLE but not in any other case.
It is essential that we create a suitable and economically sustainable foundation for the rebuild of the air service with our contracted air service partner, Airlink
During the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak, travel was unsafe but the global economy didn’t flat line.
During the 2008 financial crisis, money was tight but flying was not a health risk.
In the 110 years since the dawn of commercial flights, these blows have never been dealt in tandem – until COVID-19 struck.
Thousands of aircraft remain grounded; in Europe, as of September 2021, flight numbers were only at 40% of pre-pandemic levels.
Airlines, tourism bodies and economists all agree that, despite the rollout of the vaccines, global passenger volumes will not return to pre-COVID levels until at least 2025. This will inevitably have a detrimental impact on St Helena’s tourism development and the viability of travel arrangements to and from the Island.
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11 October 2021