Runway crack leaves hundreds stranded on Ascension Island in middle of the Atlantic
More than 800 Britons are stranded on Ascension Island after America effectively cancelled the only air link between the British overseas territory and the outside world. The twice-weekly flights between the tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire were stopped because the airstrip was not properly maintained by the US, preventing flights from landing or taking off.
The only way off the island is a ten-day sea and air trip via Cape Town, costing about £5,000, sailing on a Royal Mail ship that passes every four to six weeks and routinely breaks down. Locals told The Times that the loss of direct flights to the UK would devastate the nascent tourist business and force the island’s only hotel to close.
While Britain owns the island, a deal was struck during the Second World War that gave the US air force, which used Ascension as a staging post, responsibility for maintaining the airstrip. There have been no flights between Britain and Ascension since April.
Residents have directed their anger towards Whitehall for failing to persuade the US to perform repairs to the airstrip after heavy Airbus A330s caused a ten-foot crack to appear, forcing the Ministry of Defence to divert flights.
Johnny Hobson, who is originally from Co Antrim but has served as the island’s dentist for the past 31 years, set up the Obsidian Hotel and a car hire business in 2002. Last year the hotel, which also houses an English pub bedecked with Union Jacks, took the equivalent of 5,000 nights of bookings.
Now, with almost no arrivals to the island, he is planning to shut the hotel in September. He said the sports fishing and diving industry, which last year attracted the Emir of Qatar and his 30-strong entourage, was also folding.
Mr Hobson said: “Our investment in the hotel of over £1.2 million was effectively destroyed overnight by the decision to move the RAF air service elsewhere.”
In addition to keeping tourists at bay, residents are also cut off from children at school in the UK and the islanders’ rights to free medical care in the UK.
Caroline Yon, a magistrate and manager of the island’s European Space Agency tracking station, told The Times that bureaucrats in Whitehall had no concept of the close-knit community they were destroying. “They bring their own cynicism to bear and in so doing look down at the ‘workers’ in an almost old colonial manner,” she said.
Jacqui Ellick, a councillor, said: “People are so frustrated, and I personally feel that the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] has washed its hands of us. Those flights were a lifeline.”
The rocky volcanic outcrop of Ascension Island lies midway between Africa and South America and was discovered by the Portuguese in 1501. In 1815 the Royal Navy declared it the territory of George III.
Ascension is best-known as the main staging post for British troops heading to the Falklands and hosts an RAF station, one of four worldwide GPS antennas, a European Space Agency tracking station, space debris monitors, American and British signals bases and a BBC World Service relay station.
Most people who live on the island are employed by organisations including the BBC and the Ministry of Defence.
The US air force refused to repair the airstrip before its next scheduled refurbishment in 2019. The US has also refused landing rights for commercial aircraft. Whitehall has said that it wants Ascension to be self-sufficient but residents say taking away their links to the UK has fatally undermined that ambition.
A spokesman for the MoD said: “We continue to look with the FCO for a solution.”