The island of Saint Helena in the middle of the south Atlantic is one of the remotest places on the planet. It gained its main claim to fame – as home to the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte – for that very reason.
But the historic isolation of the 4,000 inhabitants, or “saints”, who live on this tiny British territory of just 47 square miles was supposed finally to come to an end this year – with the opening of a new £250m airport after a decade-long wait.
Due to start operating this month, the first flights have already been put off until at least May. And frustration on the island is growing, with tickets not yet on sale and talk of “hurdles” still to be overcome.
Announced in 2005, the final decision on the airport was repeatedly delayed until it was agreed by the Coalition in July 2010, with construction work getting under way in November 2011.
It is one of the Government’s most expensive investments, on a per capita basis, at a cost of more than £60,000 for each person.
The island, more than 1,200 miles from the nearest land mass, is currently only accessible by a Royal Mail ship, which sets sail on a five-day journey from Cape Town once every three weeks.
In an open letter to islanders, Richard Brown, principal of the British airline Atlantic Star – which is competing with the South African firm Comair to be the first to touch down on the island – tried to sound hopeful, although he admitted there had been “some delays”.
“We are in contact with the air access team at St Helena Government and are confident that all the hurdles to certification will be overcome,” he wrote.
However, he added that it would be “premature” to give a date for the airport to be certified for flights, given the “complexity” of the process and “the work still to be done on the airport”.
“Therefore we are not yet able to announce the date that ticket sales will start,” Mr Brown said, adding: “We fully appreciate how frustrating this waiting period is for those of you who wish to finalise 2016 travel plans. We share that frustration and naturally we would love [tickets] to be on sale right now.”
The latest edition of The Sentinel, the island’s newspaper, cast doubt on Atlantic Star’s optimism, saying: “The company has been interested in St Helena for a long time, and this latest announcement is another in a long line ... But they have so far failed to deliver on their promises to the island.”
And a pilot on the PPRuNe (Professional Pilots Rumour Network) aviation forum said: “Over a month has now passed since the second round of calibration flights. Still no word if the problems with the navigational aids have been corrected and operations would be safe.”
Janet Lawrence, Saint Helena airport’s project director, said the construction of the airport had hit a snag because of the lie of the land. “Due to the unknown nature of building an airport on the island’s uneven terrain, changes in design had to be made to facilitate that,” she said.
St Helena has been under British possession since the East India Company was given permission to govern by Oliver Cromwell in 1657. After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon, who had escaped from the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, was sent to St Helena to ensure he would never again return to Europe.