29 September 2021
Over the last few months a number of questions have been asked about St Helena Airport (HLE) and air access to the Island in general. As a result, St Helena Government’s (SHG) Sustainable Development Civil Aviation Team will over the next three weeks provide answers to the frequently asked questions:
- Week 1: The difficulties flying to and from HLE, including all the factors that need to be considered by airlines that want to operate here
- Week 2: Who can fly to HLE, given the challenges
- Week 3: Where flights can and can’t operate to from HLE.
St Helena has a relatively short runway, limiting the aircraft (and therefore airlines) that can operate here
The maximum landing distance available of HLE’s runway is 1,550 metres (5,084 feet). This is quite short given the Island’s remoteness.
For instance, Stansted is 2,749m, Walvis Bay, 2,234m, Ascension Island, 3,054m (after runway works are completed) and Johannesburg, 4,421m.
The short runway automatically restricts the types of aircraft that can land here and even imposes payload restrictions on those that can (e.g. the Titan B757 or Airlink Embraer 190).
This means higher ticket prices to reflect the higher flight costs per passenger to St Helena.
So the short runway instantly limits those airlines that could operate here depending on the types of aircraft in their fleets.
HLE can only operate in daylight
The company that regulates HLE (Air Safety Support International, based in the UK) only certified (gave permission) for the Airport to operate in daylight.
This means that any flight would have to depart between 3pm and 4pm to ensure that, in the event of an emergency, it has enough time to turn around and return to HLE for a landing in the hours of daylight.
St Helena Airport Ltd (SHAL) is undertaking a study to investigate night certification – but this is not a simple process. For example, it is likely to require one or more additional shifts, which means finding more firefighters, security etc. and having enough income from night flights to accommodate increased staffing and training costs. Given that the Airport is unlikely ever to reach break-even point, this will just mean a larger subsidy needed for the Airport from SHG and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.
The optimum weather window for landing is around lunchtime
Based on weather studies, the optimum weather window – to allow for the best possible weather on landing – will be around lunchtime. This explains why the Titan flights depart Stansted at midnight (or just after) so as to arrive at HLE (allowing for the fuel stop in Accra) at this optimal time.
An arrival time before or after this optimum weather window may introduce additional safety issues for aircraft, particularly regarding strengthened winds and more variability in conditions e.g. fog/low cloud.
‘Equal Time Point’ indicates the point at which an aircraft must continue on to its intended destination, or return to its originating airfield or a diversion airfield. When aircraft fly to HLE, a decision is made just prior to the Equal Time Point (if not before) on whether the weather is forecasted to be sufficiently good to allow the flight to continue on to St Helena; if not, the aircraft is turned around or diverted to an alternate airfield.
Finally, we need specially-equipped planes and pilots trained to fly to and land on St Helena
Airlines must overcome a number of operational challenges to operate flights to St Helena.
The most important would be the Extended Twin Engine Operations (ETOPS)regulations. These are the global regulations that operators of twin-engine aircraft need to adhere to in order to make long oceanic crossings should one of the two engines fail. ETOPS regulations do not apply to aircraft with three or four engines.
Obtaining ‘ETOPS approval’ is a lengthy and costly process. It took Airlink 10 months to achieve and may cost up to $1m per aircraft as extra navigation and safety equipment (e.g. life rafts, beacons and locator devices) need to be installed. Pilots also need enhanced training, which also costs money. An example in the USA is when Southwest Airlines (one of the largest airlines in the world) needed almost two years to obtain ETOPS approval for its California-Hawaii flights.
In addition, because our runway is 1,000 feet above sea level (on the edge of a cliff top) and is surrounded by high ground (e.g. the Barn), there is an unusual navigational landing procedure. This is deemed by regulators to be a ’high pilot work load’ landing approach, called ‘Category C’ (Cat C). There are a number of other airports in the world also graded as Cat C, such as London City Airport, Funchal in Madeira and some airfields in the European Alpine mountain resorts.
Regulators only allow highly experienced captains to perform landings at Cat C airports, and captains need to train for this in flight simulators – all of this adds extra complexity, approval time and cost to the airline (and ultimately SHG).
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29 September 2021