After years of deliberation the British government has awarded a £201 million contract to build an airport on the remote British Oversea Territory of St Helena (population 4,000) in the mid South Atlantic.
Lying away from the trade route between Europe and South Africa, St Helena has, since 1977, operated its own shipping service with, successively, two passenger - cargo ships. The current St Helena, built at Aberdeen in 1990, can carry 128 passengers and 2,000 tonnes of general cargo. Although destined to ply a route between the UK-Ascension Is-St Helena and Cape Town it is the choice of the current governor of St Helena that the ship operates only in the South Atlantic, thus driving up the current annual shipping subsidy to over £4.5m a year.
If the Airport is completed and operational by 2015, the use of the St Helena may cease and traders on the Island will have to depend on the vagaries of the ship charter market, live with irregular arrivals and uncertain landed costs of their imported goods. All travellers to and from St Helena will be expected to use the airline that will have to be subsidised to provide scheduled flights regardless of load factors: it is not intended that residents, or tourists will be able to travel by sea. The RMS St Helena is one of the last remaining ships to carry the proud designation Royal Mail Ship.