Swaziland seeks to justify cost of airport by restarting airline

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Swaziland’s new airline will fly to 10 destinations in Africa and the Middle East, government aviation authorities say.

The cost for starting and maintaining the airline is necessary to ensure usage of a completed but vacant new international airport, but the venture will leave the small landlocked country virtually penniless.

“The airline will fly to destinations such as the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, Rwanda, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Botswana, among other [destinations],” Solomon Dube, the director of the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority, said last week.

The purchase price for a new passenger jet is about R700 million and the total cost in plane purchases to service the 10 routes would be approximately R7 billion.

The Central Bank of Swaziland said the country’s gross official reserves at the end of last year stood at about R8bn.

Dube, whose department would create and run the new Swaziland airline, said passenger fees would generate income to cover the R3bn construction costs of the Sikhupe Airport.

User fees will be doubled from the current R50 at the existing but under-utilised national airport near Manzini.

Only one airline, Swaziland Airlink, which is co-owned by the Swaziland government, flies scheduled flights into Swaziland, carrying about 70 000 passengers annually.

Dube said the 300 000 passengers expected to utilise the Sikhupe facility would generate R3m in revenue.

The projections depend on the new airport’s success at becoming a regional airline hub rivalling Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport. However, no foreign airline is willing to land there.

In November last year, the aviation authority admitted that a link airline was needed to take incoming passengers to other destinations in Africa. To do this, the Swazi government announced it would revive the defunct Swaziland National Airways, which went out of business a decade ago due to mismanagement and low customer demand.

Dube said international air carriers “do not want their passengers stranded in a Third World country and therefore if we want them to use our airport we should also have a national airline to go to places like Zimbabwe and Botswana”.

To avoid writing off the new airport, the Swazi government has no alternative to running a link airline.

The manager of a freight-forwarding firm in Manzini said demand for air freight into and out of Swaziland was negligible and air passenger numbers were also limited.

“The only way to raise passenger numbers four times to reach what’s projected for Sikhupe is if the airport is used for transit traffic for passengers arriving to change planes to other destinations. But the choice of routes they are proposing doesn’t make sense.

“Why would air passengers from Europe and Asia fly to Swaziland and change planes to go to Nairobi, Dar es Salaam or Addis Ababa when they can fly to those places directly or by shorter routes that don’t take them to the southern tip of Africa before having to go back north again?

“Why would they fly to Swaziland at all when there is a better and more reliable airport 20 minutes away in Johannesburg?” said the freight forwarder, who asked that his name not be used because his firm does business with the government. No cost-benefit analysis was conducted or business plan prepared prior to the construction of the airport.



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