British Antarctic scientists are among dozens stranded on the Falkland Islands by the closure of the “potholed” runway at the crucial Atlantic mid-point of Ascension Island.
The deterioration of the surface has forced the MoD to urgently re-route its strategic “air bridge” with the southern archipelago via West Africa.
As well as disrupting military and civilian access to the Falklands, the closure of the stop-off runway to long-range aircraft further isolates Ascension islanders and those on the dependent island of St Helena, both British overseas territories, from the outside world.
We have made the decision to not fly the Voyager aircraft to Ascension for our routine flight...for safety reasons
Ministry of Defence
Confirmation of its dilapidated state comes the year after UK Government officials admitted that large aircraft could not land at a newly-built £250,000,000 airstrip at St Helena because it was too windy.
An ageing cargo ship, RMS St Helena, was brought back from retirement to service the two mid-Atlantic islands, but the vessel is currently out of action in South Africa having started to leak.
Last night former international development minister Lord Foulkes said the plight of the islanders had become a “farce, bordering on tragedy”.
A spokesman for the Falkland Islands Government said the military air bridge was “essential” for the security of the islands, revealing that the MoD was rerouting it’s Wednesday flight from RAF Brize Norton, one of roughly two flights a week, via Senegal.
The state of the runway at Ascension, which played a crucial role in retaking the Falklands from Argentina in 1982, forced Sunday’s flight to be cancelled.
Ascension Island accommodates only a few hundred people, all of whom are employed on the Island and there is no automatic right to live there.
A statement on the RAF Brize Norton website said officials would be limiting the number of non-essential population there due to “capacity issues”.
St Helena, by contrast has a population of around 4,500, whose leaders have been desperately trying to boost the island’s economy by improving transport links.
Because its airstrip can only accommodate short-haul aircraft, islanders rely on flights to RAF Ascension in order to reach the UK, a link which has now been severed.
For this to happen on the back of the situation with the St Helena runway is a farce, bordering on tragedy,” said Lord Foulkes.
“The problems with RMS St Helena make it even worse.”
An MOD spokesman said: “As part of on-going monitoring of the state of repair of the Ascension Island runway, we have made the decision to not fly the Voyager aircraft to Ascension for our routine flight from 14 Apr 2017 for safety reasons.
“We will ensure the continuation of military support to the Falkland Islands through an alternative hub, and are working with the Foreign Office to put temporary measures in place to support the people who live and work on Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands.”