16 June 2012

Swaziland: Doubts Over Prospects for Airport

The Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) is refusing to disclose the names of airlines it says are willing to use the Sikhuphe International Airport when it eventually opens.

This comes amid a disclosure that no agreements have been made with Swaziland's neighbouring countries about which routes planes will be allowed to use in and out of the new airport. And, it could take at least three years before airlines start using the airport.

SWACAA has been talking up the prospects for the airport, even though it is not yet finished and no completion date has been announced.

Sikhuphe Airport, dubbed King Mswati III's 'vanity project' by critics, is at least two years behind schedule opening. The King himself had confidently announced the airport would open in time for the FIFAWorld Cup in South Africa in 2010, but today two years later the airport is nowhere near ready to open.

SWACAA Marketing and Corporate Affairs Director Sabelo Dlamini told Swazi media that at least three airlines from different countries have 'shown interest' in using Sikhuphe, but he declined to name them. He remained optimistic about the prospects for Sikhuphe and said SWACAA was talking to airlines in other countries as well.

But, he also revealed that it could take three years for an airline to actually start using the airport once it has decided to do so. 'Normally, airline operators need about three years to prepare for such an exercise and we are nursing hopes that those we have approached will consider our proposals. What I can safely say is that we have three potential airlines ready to operate from the airport,' he told the Swazi Observer.

Although he did not say so, this means it is highly unlikely that any significant air traffic will use Sikhuphe before at least 2016.

Dlamini also revealed that no agreement had been reached with Swaziland's neighbours South Africa and Mozambique about which routes planes would be allowed to take in and out of Sikhuphe.

There have been many doubts in the past that there is a need for Sikhuphe. Swaziland's existing airport at Matsapha is under used and there are many other airports catering for international airlines in South Africa and other nations in southern Africa. The total cost of Sikhuphe by the time it is eventually finished has been estimated by some to be in the region of US$1 billion.

These doubts were renewed this week by former Zombodze Emuva Member of Parliament and businessman Titus Thwala who told SWACAA at a meeting with the Federation of the Swazi Business Community (FESBC) that Sikhuphe was a 'white elephant' that would eventually bring the kingdom's economy to its knees.

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