16 OCTOBER 2017


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Article from BTNews 16 OCTOBER 2017

COMMENT: The people's airport

Somebody, referring to the august profession in which BTN dabbles, once said “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. It’s usually attributed to Mark Twain, but in the way of these things there is some discussion about that. No matter; it’s the thought that counts and it is a thought called to mind of coverage for the arrival of the first commercial airline flight to deliver passengers at the new airport on the remote island of St Helena.

This is the complex which another member of our fraternity dubbed “the most useless airport in the world”, one of those cheap throwaway lines that sounds good at the time until you find you can’t get rid of it. True to form, it was trotted out endlessly in reports in the UK media of the arrival of Saturday’s Airlink flight from Johannesburg. Second-hand and second-rate journalism.

The real prize however went to the increasingly-hysterical London Evening Standard, now under the stewardship of former chancellor and rabid anti-Brexiteer George Osborne. One of the reporters on the inaugural mentioned in passing the aircraft arrived 45min late – this for a 1,200mi journey scheduled at 6hr 15min, including a tech stop in Windhoek, Namibia. The Standard put this newsworthy "fact" in its big black headline: “St Helena airport welcomes first commercial flight – but it lands 45 minutes late.” One wonders exactly how often the writer concerned actually gets on an aircraft these days.

Yes the flight was delayed, but since the people of St Helena have been waiting for someone to end their isolation since 1909, when Louis Blériot flew the Channel and ended the myth that islands could never be reached without great hardship, did another 45min really matter? The way this weekend’s story was written up was just headline-grabbing. 

Yes, the new St Helena Airport cost £285m of UK taxpayers’ money, as we have been constantly reminded, but far from being useless it is probably the world's finest people’s airport, built for compelling social reasons and bringing a whole community into the 21st century. The alternative for anyone wishing to land there was a five-day rough sea crossing every few weeks.

It overcame daunting obstacles, not least the fact that the best site, one of the few flat spaces on the notoriously craggy island, was ruled out because of a nearby breeding ground for the wirebird, an endangered species of plover. To utilise the new location, a valley had to be filled in with 8m cubic metres of rock, among other challenges, hence the cost. Weather problems had to be assessed and overcome. And after all that, on Saturday an aircraft finally brought one of the world’s most remote outposts within reach of the rest of all of us. 

Blériot and all the other pioneers would have been proud.

(See also  ON TOUR  and the  AND FINALLY   in this issue).

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Gillian George, United Kingdom

Having seen estimates of £18.6bn for the 3rd runway at LHR £285m looks like petty cash. Someone should be congratulated for a great achievement!

Malcolm Ginsberg, United Kingdom

Mr Schoenherr remarks about Brexit are out of context. In any event St Helena is not part of the EU, unlike similar French outposts.

David Bentley, Manchester/UK

What do you expect from the gutter press? How is it still in business?

Brian Donohoe, United Kingdom

I bet in a few Years it will become a "Must go" destination Revisit in 10 years and you'll see I'm right

Allan Schoenherr, Prague, CZ

Nice piece and I am sure Bleriot would be proud. I am glad to see this airport finally opened. I don't think however there was any need for the snidy swipe at the Evening Standard just because they happen to have a different opinion to BTN regarding Brexit? Especially with the London Evening Standard quote that sits proudly in your banner on every page? I don't really see how Brexit is relevant to this article and to be honest it cheapens it. Not the first time I have seen BTN make tenuous links in their constant Brexiteering.

John Gardiner, London

Excellent comment piece. The British also need to remember that many of the people on the island, like my own family, are descended from Indian and Malagasy slaves, or from Chinese indentured labourers, who had little choice in being sent there in the first place. Yes, the airport was expensive, but the U.K. has an obligation still to these far flung parts of its ex-imperial past.