New Swazi airport stands idle as citizens count cost

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Swazi King Mswati III seems oblivious to descriptions of his new R3 billion airport as a “vanity project”. Opening the facility this week, he named the airport after himself.

“The nation will agree with me that we have all been looking forward to this day because the new airport comes with multiple benefits for the general populace. We welcome you all to this new jewel for the kingdom,” he said.

He did not specify what benefits the airport would bring to the Swazi people or business community, which faces longer travel times and air freight delivery delays. When construction began in 2003, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said its cost would rob Swaziland of funds needed for meaningful developmental projects to boost food production, education and health care. At the time, the cost of the airport per person was R500.

Eleven years later, with a population one-third larger and costs having ballooned sixfold, the airport price for every Swazi man, woman and child has become R2 300. By comparison, elderly Swazis get annual grants of R2 400, and two-thirds of Swazis live on less than R3 650 a year.

King Mswati devoted much of his airport dedication speech to condemning critics of the project. He ridiculed a consultant who suggested an African theme for the terminal building.

“I recall that this ‘expert’ said we must thatch the roof of the airport. I imagined that we would be the only country to have a thatched-roof airport,” a displeased Mswati said.

Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport has a thatched roof covering 7 000m2 of terminal space. Located 20 minutes away by air from the King Mswati III International Airport (KM3 airport), the Mpumalanga airport is one reason aviation experts doubt the viability of Swaziland’s new air facility. KwaZulu-Natal’s King Shaka International Airport is 20 minutes by air to the east, and 30 minutes west is the regional air hub, Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport.

The KM3 airport, which was built without a business plan, will sit idle in lowveld pastureland for the foreseeable future. No commercial flight has ever landed or departed, and no international air carrier wants to operate there. The number of passengers flying into and out of Swaziland each year is 70 000, and the new airport requires 400 000 passengers a year to cover operating costs. Only one airline operates, Swaziland Airlink, a joint business venture between the government, SAA, SA Express and SA Airlink.

There is only one route, to Johannesburg. Despite the opening of the KM3 Airport, Swaziland Airlink continues to operate from Matsapha Airport outside Manzini. Bankruptcy awaits if the airline is forced to relocate.

A 2009 study commissioned by the company found air travellers would save time driving to Johannesburg rather than flying from the new airport’s location in the isolated hamlet Sikhupe.

“The road journey takes three hours including a stop at the border post. Total travel time from Matsapha, including getting to the airport, waiting, flying, going through customs and retrieving baggage at Johannesburg and taking ground transport to the destination is on average three hours 30 minutes. From [KM3 airport] the journey in each direction will take four hours 20 minutes. This will make air travel from a morning or a day trip unviable as the time taken for travel will amount to eight hours 40 minutes, whereas road travel will take six hours,” the study noted.

“With 60 percent of passengers on this route being point-to-point travellers, it is estimated that as much as 40 percent of these passengers and 20 percent of connecting passengers, or 32 percent of current passengers, will opt for road travel.

“The risk of a move to [KM3 airport] is unpalatable considering that in a realistic scenario the business will run at a loss… leaving the business unsustainable and an inevitable failure,” the study concluded.

Only by taking over management of Matsapha Airport can Swaziland Airlink survive as a business.

King Mswati is not likely to allow that, given his master plan for his kingdom. Last year the king decreed that by the year 2022 Swaziland must achieve First-World status. A new airport was key to becoming just like an advanced country, he said.

The KM3 airport is similar in size to a provincial airport rather than a modern national airport. The barren countryside surrounding the boxy terminal and single runway is populated by goats and cattle instead of hotels and service businesses.

If the airport is to be made viable, the spending of public monies has only begun. Because international air carriers are unwilling to land there instead of in Johannesburg because there are no connecting flights to other countries, the government’s answer is to create a brand new airline. The cost of planes alone will exceed the annual national education budget.

Because an airport hotel is needed, the government says it will build one, and of five-star quality. A convention centre will be built also. At the airport dedication, Mswati said an entire town would be erected nearby, and an industrial park, all to accommodate the hordes of passengers disembarking to do business, convene meetings and sight-see.

“Let us make this facility a preferred airport by airlines of the world,” he declared. He added in a tone that sounded more ominous than humorous, “This is not a joke.”


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