The British overseas territory of St. Helena made news this week with the opening of its brand new airport, which many have called the “world’s most useless airport”.

The small island of St. Helena only consists of 47 square miles. It has only about 4,500 inhabitants and is 1,900 kilometres off the coast of the African nation of Angola.

A British overseas territory in one of the most isolated islands in the world, it is volcanic outcrop. Not many people know about it. In fact, it is most famous for being the place Napoleon died.

However, its new airport has cost the nation over $350 million to construct. It was built in 2016, but a series of safety issues led it to only finally open until now.

The first plane to land on the island departed from Johannesburg, South Africa with passengers reportedly cheering on board upon landing. Discussions about building the airport occurred since before the Second World War. Delays in construction largely occurred because of environmental concerns. The best site to build the facility was ruled out because it would threaten the endangered wirebird. Test flights were delayed due to crosswinds, which would make it unsafe for large aircraft.

London criticised the airport as the “world’s most useless airport” because of all the delays.

However, the locals call it “priceless”. Prior to the airport, the only way to actually travel to the island was a five-night journey by sea. One would need to travel from Cape Town.

Is the airport still going to be useless? Even the inaugural flight that arrived only carried 68 passengers, when the plane actually had room for 100. This was due to weight restrictions. The island in the past has received only about 3,500 visitors a year (though this may now increase).

However, we believe airports are much more than just a port for domestic and international air travel. Obviously, that is their primary goal. However, across the world, we can see that airports are a much more significant piece of the community puzzle. They can provide critical services such as postal services, they can operate as air ambulances, emergency services, ports for crop dusting and flight training. They are certainly not useless.

Governor Lisa Phillips of St. Helena agrees. She said that before its first commercial flight, the ‘useless’ airport enabled a range of live-saving emergency evacuations. They even managed to save a newborn baby.

Small airports are a concern for Australia too. Lyn Gallacher for The Law Report this month argued that Australia’s small airports are facing difficulties. She found that 61 per cent of aerodromes across the country operated at a loss in 2014-2016. Local councils are seeing more revenue in selling land to developers rather than keep it operational in their hands. There is unfortunately a loss of a ‘small airport’ culture happening in Australia.

Perhaps looking at St. Helena, therefore, provides some inspiration.

Photo by Paul Tyson. Taken from Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons licence.