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A trip to Saint Helena is an experience that will be hard to match. The Pros: You’re experiencing a part of the world few ever get the chance to see and Airlink service was fantastic. The Cons: Seven hours on an Embraer made it a very long day.
On a rare occasion, an aviation opportunity arises which is so unique, you’re confident a similar chance won’t occur again in your lifetime. On October 14th, I flew the first commercial flight into the British territory of Saint Helena, an island in the middle of the South Atlantic best known as the place where Napoleon died.
The flight symbolically opened one of the last truly isolated places in the world. Spanning seven hours on a regional jet, the trip included refueling in Namibia, a harrowing landing complete with warnings from the captain about the island’s terrible wind, an airport surrounded by high cliffs and built at enormous cost by flattening a mountaintop — and a party for all the passengers.
That was the culmination of a story that started 12 years ago and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and finally brought air service to an island of 4,000 British subjects who previously relied on a slow mail boat as their sole link to the world.
It’s no chance the British Empire sent its archenemy into exile to this island — it’s 2,500 miles from South America and 1,200 from Africa, a rocky, windswept place that in the 19th century would have been the epitome of remoteness. And even in the 21st, getting there is no small feat.
The idea of an airport on St. Helena has beginnings as early as WWII, when the British believed an airstrip would be necessary. Due to the remote location and mountainous terrain, it was deemed too expensive and the airport plans remained a dream for the next 60 years. In 2005 a serious proposal was made and the project given the go ahead in 2011 by the British government, in the hopes the island would develop a strong tourism economy and become less reliant on government aid.
Construction began in 2012 and was completed in 2015, after at least $375 million and an immense engineering effort. Still, wind shear that affected the first commercial test flight in 2016 was heavily publicized and caused another year of delays while data was collected and the best approach path tested. This is not the Tropics — St. Helena is ruggedly beautiful, but it has seriously bad weather.
In June of this year Airlink, a small regional airline based in South Africa and operating flights for South African Airways, won a bid to operate once-weekly flights to the island. Feeder flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town will meet in Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) where the Embraer 190 twinjet that flew from Johannesburg will take on the Cape Town passengers and refuel before the 3.5 hour leg to Saint Helena (HLE). It’s a big hop for the Brazilian-made jet, but the version Airlink uses on the route is a Series 100 ETOPS — an acronym meaning Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards. In other words, it features additional fuel tanks and flies longer than the standard model, which US-based fliers might be used to seeing on far less demanding regional routes.
Tickets went on sale September 25th. I booked the ticket directly with Airlink on FlyAirlink.com. I paid $1,337.42 for the round trip economy ticket on my Platinum card from American Express to earn 5X points. The flight booked into K fare, which is almost full fare, and hopefully should earn 100% of the miles flown in my United account. (South African Airways is United’s partner in Star Alliance.)
My ticket for the inaugural was only a bit more expensive than what the standard fare is selling for flights going forward. A round-trip ticket is selling for about $1,050 — expensive for anyone but incredibly expensive for native Saint Helenians (or Saints as they call themselves) whose average annual income is just £7,000 ($9,300). Many of the residents I spoke with know they’ll never be able to afford the flight — and there is no resident discount from Airlink.
At the time I booked tickets, there was no avenue to using airline miles for an award seat. A week before the inaugural flight, South African Voyager published a chart for an award ticket to St. Helena (HLE) from JNB. It will set you back 96,500 Voyager miles one way, a stunning cost. I have not found award availability using other Star Alliance programs. HLE at least loads on United.com, a step ahead of other websites I checked.
Check-In and Lounge
Airlink has dedicated check-in counters in terminal B at O.R. Tambo International airport in Johannesburg (JNB). For our flight, two desks were dedicated to just checking us in at the end of the row of counters.
There was only a single boarding pass for the flight from Johannesburg, as we would not deplane in Windhoek while fueling. After check in I checked the Priority Pass app to see which lounges were available. The Shongololo Lounge looked interesting from the pictures in the app and was in the same terminal as my gate. Without a doubt, this was the most vibrantly decorated lounged I’ve ever visited. The furniture was all very big, every color in the spectrum was used somewhere in the lounge and the space was divided into several oddly shaped subsections.
The food and beverages offered were superior to many other lounges, with a hot breakfast buffet out as well as multiple pre-packaged sandwiches, pastries, breads, and fresh fruits offered.
The lounge agent did not ask for my boarding pass and also did not make me sign the Priority Pass machine. I also had the lounge essentially to myself and highly recommend the Shongololo next time you are in JNB.
I walked from the lounge and arrived to the gate about 15 minutes before boarding time with the expectation of some type of fanfare, maybe a speech from a dignitary. Instead, it was a completely normal boarding with the sign even saying Windhoek instead of St. Helena. There were no announcements of any type about the historic nature of our flight. (Things would be very, very different on the island.)
A quick glance around showed the vast majority of my fellow passengers for the day would be media and Airlink employees. We were all trying to identify a native Saint to interview, and found only four — most passengers were other journalists and media members. We also carried two airline mechanics on the trip in case anything went wrong in St. Helena.
The four native Saints on the flight were all traveling back to the island due to health issues. One Saint’s mother had just passed away, and another’s was not doing well. They were grateful to not have to take the standard five-day, one-way sailing of the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St. Helena from Cape Town to get back home.
Other non-media passengers included a team of five log-home builders who would be on the island until December building a few new homes, and the island’s veterinarian and her husband coming back from their annual holiday. The veterinarian was a UK national, born in Cornwall, who had seen the advertisement for the job in a magazine and decided it’d be quite fun. Both she and her husband were excited to cut 10 days off their round trip journey home from the island.
Cabin and Seat
Our plane, registration ZS-YAB, was originally delivered to Virgin Blue in Australia in 2008. Newly leased by Airlink, it has 98 seats, 6 business in a 1×2 configuration and 92 economy seats in a 2×2 configuration with a 32” seat pitch.
The plane looked in new condition and was clean from ceiling to floor. All seats reclined just enough to be a bit more comfortable.
Due to weight restrictions for the long flight and carrying fuel for the required two hours of extra flying time, Airlink is only selling 70 seats per flight. This meant I scored an empty seat next to me and was rather comfortable for the long journey on a small plane.
The Airlink magazine Skyways in each seatback pocket featured Saint Helena on the cover, plus ideas about activities to keep you busy on the island. Flights after the inaugural will land on Saturdays at 1:15PM and depart at 2:30PM back to Windhoek, meaning you’ll have no choice but to spend either one hour or an entire week on St. Helena.
There is no inflight entertainment or Wi-Fi. There are also no power ports or USB ports.
Service and Food
Knowing Embraers typically have no galley equipment to heat food, I wasn’t sure what/if we would be served on the long journey. I came onboard prepared to be self sufficient for the day. But as soon as being welcomed onboard by the two flight attendants who would stay with us through the day and return journey, I knew we were in good hands.
During the entire journey, the attendants did not stop pacing the cabin with a beverage cart and snack cart, or walking the aisle to ensure everyone was happy. All food was included in our fare and the beverage carts served a variety of soft drinks in addition to South African beer and wine.
For the 1 hour 50 minute leg from JNB to our fuel stop in Windhoek, Namibia (WDH), we were served drinks and a beef or chicken hoagie. It was rather simple and not appealing to the eye, but if you were hungry it was more than adequate. On the 3.5 hour leg from WDH to HLE, snack boxes were served in either beef, chicken, or veggie varieties. It again was simple sandwhich or selection of potatoes and vegetables with a chocolate bar, but was more than adequate to calm any hunger, and everything was served with a smile.
An hour prior to landing in Saint Helena, champagne and chocolates were given out to passengers in commemoration of the first flight. A raffle was held for which passenger would get to be the first off the plane in Saint Helena to what turned out to be cameras and cheers.
Because of the well publicized wind shear problem at the St. Helena airport, our landing was the predominant topic of conversation throughout the day amongst passengers. 30 minutes prior to beginning our descent, the captain came on the PA and gave us a weather update and directly addressed the wind shear possibility. Light to moderate wind shear was forecast for our approach with winds at 25km per hour gusting up to 50km (30 mph). This was good weather for St. Helena, according to the captain, who even proceeded to brief passengers on the go-around procedure for the aircraft and told everyone there was no reason to worry.
After a normal descent we broke through the clouds at 2,000 feet and saw nothing but ocean. Within a few minutes the staggering sight of high, rugged cliffs came into view over the wing and the island began to take up more and more of the window. A dramatic landing ensued as we approached from the South. Cliffs higher than our plane on the starboard side were a majestic sight as we flew parallel to the coast the last 30 seconds before landing. The approach was the most turbulent I have experienced; coupled with the cliffs taking up my entire window, the landing made for an unforgettable experience.
There were “oohs” and “ahhs” throughout the cabin during the last 30 seconds of the flight as we were pushed in all directions by strong winds before runway 20 appeared from the ocean beneath our wings and the plane touched down to applause from all onboard.
Looking at the runway after landing is when it began to sink in that you were on top of a mountain in one of the most remote islands in the world.
The Saint Helena Airport Fire Department gave our plane the customary water salute, and judging from the people standing on the cliffs and the completely packed airport observation deck, the entire island had shown up to witness this scene 12 years in the making.
We deplaned from the forward door and each passenger was welcomed by the Governor of Saint Helena and the captain and first officer holding a South African and a Saint Helenian flag.
We walked straight into the immigrations desk where it became apparent, but also endearing, that all the employees were still learning their jobs. As the first commercial flight, the 70 of us onboard were 10 times larger than any passenger group they’d dealt with.
The new airport averaged only about three flights a month before commercial service started. Immigration, baggage handling, and customs took a bit longer than normal and every employee was ensuring all rules and regulations were followed. The Saints were obviously taking great pride in their new and very beautiful airport.
Also unlike other inaugural flights, we got invited to a reception the same evening we landed in White Gate, the St. Helena Governor’s residence. We were presented with personalized certificates commemorating our place as a passenger on the first commercial flight to this wonderful island.
Jamestown, the capital of St. Helena, then threw a “Flight Night” party with live music and food by the waterfront. As the only American onboard, and a rather rookie journalist surrounded by BBC, Associated Press, and Reuters international correspondents, word had apparently spread through the island about me. By the evening I was asked if I was “that American from the plane” in each shop and pub I visited. Plane passengers throughout the stay held a certain type of celebrity, and most of the island showed up the following day at the airport to bid us farewell.
Once the flight was over, St. Helena revealed itself to be a wonderful, fascinating, and charming destination. I’ll be writing a dedicated post about life on the island, its residents, the opinions on commercial air service, and sights on the island to see.
The Embraer 190 proved surprisingly more than comfortable for the long flight and the Airlink cabin service could not have been better. The flight and return flight were social affairs with the majority of us chatting and making new friends.
The success of the route is still an unknown factor. Initial reports show bookings are low. The cost of the ticket is prohibitive to locals and the only once a week service is likely making the public hesitant to spend an entire week on the island.
The St. Helena Tourism Authority is working hard in conjunction with the Governor to ensure the island’s tourism infrastructure is up to modern-day expectations. Given the investment of almost $400 million by the British government in the airport, there is a lot riding on that effort.
Would you travel seven hours on an Embraer 190 to visit Saint Helena?
All photos courtesy of author unless otherwise noted.
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