Lewis Simelane Mbabane
THE FIRST flights have begun operations at Swaziland’s King Mswati III International Airport, located an hour’s drive east of Mbabane in the lowveld hamlet of Sikhupe. King Mswati III officially opened the airport in March, but flights have only now commenced.
“We have fully moved to this airport,” Teddy Mavuso, the general manager of Swaziland Airlink, said at a ceremony for the first departing passengers of the only airline using the facility. Swaziland Airlink flies one route, to and from Johannesburg.
Twenty-nine passengers travelled aboard the first official flight. With three flights daily, passenger volumes have been the same as at the previous airport at Matsapha outside Manzini. The Matsapha airport closed to commercial air traffic last week and will be used by aircraft of the royal family and the army.
The Matsapha airport recorded 70 000 passengers annually. The King Mswati III International Airport will require almost six times that number, or about 400 000 passengers a year, to recoup construction and operating costs.
Reportedly, R3 billion has been spent on the airport so far, and work is still to be done. A taxiway, aircraft hangers and passenger amenities like a duty-free shop have yet to be built.
Additional time and costs involved in using the airport may inhibit use by Swazi passengers. Swaziland Airlink indicated early this year that ticket prices were likely to rise because of the longer distance to Johannesburg from the King Mswati site compared with the Matsapha airport.
A 2009 study commissioned by Swaziland Airlink concluded that the air carrier would go out of business if forced to utilise the King Mswati airport.
The report noted that the driving time between Mbabane and Johannesburg was about three hours, while the total flight time, including time spent travelling to King Mswati Airport, as well as the boarding and flying time, was four hours and 20 minutes. Because most passengers are point-to-point flyers who use the airline for one-day business trips, flying from this airport will eat up almost nine hours of their day, versus the six hours by car.
“In a realistic scenario, [Swaziland Airlink] will run at a loss, leaving the business unsustainable and an inevitable failure,” the report noted.
A website has been launched for the airport. Swazi press reports indicate the site averages two hits a day.
Traffic congestion is not a problem for passengers undertaking the drive to the airport, although cows on the highway pose a threat to motorists.
To ensure the airport’s success, police are escorting buses ferrying passengers from Manzini. But the first bus to arrive with a full police escort carried only one passenger. A dozen female prison guards in traditional Swazi attire danced for him in front of the terminal.
When the project was announced in 2003, the International Monetary Fund advised the Swaziland government against spending money required for use on economic growth and poverty eradication. Thus far per capita spending on the airport amounts to R2 500 for every person in the country. Of the population, 70 percent lives in chronic poverty on less than R20 a day.
The government is pushing the airport by negotiating with foreign air carriers to land there, but none have shown interest in light of better located airports nearby in Durban, Johannesburg, Maputo and Nelspruit. Foreign air carriers have objected that their passengers do not fly to Swaziland, but to other destinations in Africa.
The Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority promised in January to create a new national airline to ferry passengers to their primary destinations in Africa, but no progress has since been reported.
The authority has produced a 20 minute film promoting the airport that the government has ordered to be shown at Swaziland’s embassies abroad. The video predicts a boost in local agriculture and industry as businesses freight their products worldwide by air.
Air freight volumes were zero in the first week of airport operations. The video promises direct flights to Botswana and New York. Aviation authorities have noted that other than chartered flights, direct flights from Europe and even African destinations cannot be justified by Swaziland’s low passenger volumes.
Critics of the airport said the project was undertaken with no viable or credible business plan being put forward.