Air Transport Links with the Falkland Islands (and St Helena): May 2017

 The closure of Ascension Island as a refuelling stop for the MOD airbridge to the Falkland Islands because of runway problems has severely compromised the ease of civilian transport links with the Falklands (and St Helena). With Argentina reneging on its undertaking to allow a second ‘third country’ flight to/from Latin America (but with a monthly stop in Argentina as with the LATAM flight), the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) is looking at other possibilities for direct flights that would avoid Argentine airspace altogether. St Helena’s transport links have been further exacerbated by the fiasco over its newly built airport, which has failed so far to obtain a full air safety licence. 

It has always been a long and tedious flight to get to the Falkland Islands but recent problems in Ascension Island have accentuated the difficulties. In April, the runway on Ascension Island was found to be breaking up, requiring the re-routing of the MOD airbridge to and from the Falkland Islands: reportedly repairs may not be finished before 2019. Initially, the Airbus A330 was re-routed via Dakar, Senegal but a new route via the Cape Verde Islands is now being trialled. 

These difficulties have provided further stimulus to the Falkland Islands Government’s search for another commercial carrier to fly direct to the Falklands. The weekly LATAM flight from Punta Arenas, Chile every Saturday is much appreciated by Falkland Islanders – but to go further abroad, it involves a change to Santiago and then another change to the UK or elsewhere - and the Punta flight is often fully booked in the busy summer months. There were hopes that the Joint Communique agreed in September 2016 between the UK and Argentine Governments would allow a second flight to Latin America, provided that once a month there was a stop-over in each direction in Argentina (as with the LATAM flight). The Falkland Islands Government (FIG) therefore pursued the possibility of a regular mid-week flight to/from Sao Paolo, Brazil or Santiago, Chile, on the understanding that the Government of Argentina (GoA) would make it known that they would not object. But GoA has not fulfilled that promise, offering instead direct flights to/from Argentina: these would not be acceptable to FIG because it would expose the Falklands to Argentine control over their air connections with Latin America. 

FIG issued a statement on 18 May 2017 (See link on the right of this page) to say that they were now inviting interest from international carriers prepared to fly direct routes that would avoid Argentine airspace. 

These routes would, of course, be more expensive – and FIG would have to consider their commercial viability. But it has been a long-held ambition for the Falklands to have a commercial airlink that was not dependent on Argentine acquiescence or permission. 

One reason for the lack of progress may be the fact that President Macri’s administration does not command a majority in either house in Congress – and that this can only be rectified after the Argentine mid-term elections on 22 October. But Macri’s electoral position is not strong and even within his own political grouping there is criticism of his policy towards the Falkland Islands. Whatever the case, progress on flights (or any of the other Falklands-related issues in the September 2016 Communique, save the ICRC project to identify the unidentified Argentine war dead in the Darwin cemetery) is unlikely until after the October elections, if then. 

St Helena 

The Saints are having a tough time of it too. The discovery last year that heavier passenger aircraft could not land on their newly built £250 million airport because of wind shear problems has undermined previous hopes for their economic recovery. Then the closure of Ascension added a further difficulty, particularly as the elderly RMS St Helena had to go into dry dock for essential maintenance. St Helena’s Government is now having to consider a charter for a smaller 60 seat aircraft which requires less runway but this will be expensive and the link is via Namibia. 

For those who delight in such things, readers are recommended to view the Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into the St Helena airport project, with DFID’s Permanent Secretary trying to defend his department by saying that airport project management was not a normal skill for aid staff. George Foulkes, a former DFID Minister, summed things up by saying that the whole affair was "a farce bordering on tragedy”.