UK government authorities have formally re-opened a tender for the construction and operation of an airport on St Helena, which could generate the first international air services to the south Atlantic island, one of the last countries on earth without an airfield.

A UK overseas territory, St Helena has no airport facility and the island is not on a major shipping route. It is one of the world's most isolated islands situated around 1,600km (800nm) off the west coast of Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean. Currently the only access is by sea primarily by the UK mail service Royal Mail's own ship, RMS St Helena.The island is supplied by a dedicated subsidised transport ship, which is due to be retired around 2010, but an air service connection has long been considered.

Construction of an airport capable of handling Boeing 737-800 aircraft is viewed as the best option to maintain the transport links. The airport would enable the island to become more self-sufficient and reduce its dependence on external assistance – much of which comes from the UK.

The airport would include a 1,650m (5,413ft) runway with 300m safety areas on each end – one of which could be paved to extend the runway to 1,950m.

St Helena’s government has invited, through the UK Department for International Development, candidates to apply for the contract to design, build and operate the airport for about a ten-year period.

An earlier competition to develop an airport for the territory, opened in October last year, was subsequently cancelled in order that certain aspects of the tender could be amended.

Two other options for maintaining the transport connection to St Helena – the replacement of the supply ship and the creation of a smaller aerodrome for handling 19-seat business jets – were deemed to be too limited.