11 November 2013

Swaziland: Promise to Open King's Airport Broken

Sikhuphe International Airport in Swaziland, dubbed by independent observers as 'King Mswati III's vanity project', is supposed to be open and operational, but there are no obvious signs that it is.

Solomon Dube, director of the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA), was widely reported in the Swazi media last month saying the airport would be 'fully licenced and operational' by now.

The Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in the kingdom, reported Dube saying he was 'sure, confident and optimistic' about a late October or early November date because the facility licencing was ongoing and was being undertaken by his department.

But, we still await the first plane to touch down and if recent history is a guide, the opening will not take place in the foreseeable future.

Sikhuphe has been widely criticised as a vanity project for the King, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch. The King is keen to show that his kingdom is on its way to becoming a 'first world' nation.

As long ago as 2003, the International Monetary Fund said it should not be built because it would divert funds away from much needed projects to fight poverty in Swaziland. About seven in ten of King Mswati's 1.3 million subjects live in abject poverty, earning less than US$2 per day.

It was first announced that it would open in June 2010, and its opening has been delayed many times since.

There is no obvious need for the new airport which is being built in the Swazi wilderness 80 kilometres east of the Swazi capital Mbabane.

Major airports already exist less than an hour's flying time away in South Africa with connecting routes to Swaziland and there is no reason to suspect passengers would want to use the airport at Sikhuphe as an alternative.

There has never been a needs analysis undertaken on the airport, and Swaziland's present airport at Matsapha only carries about 70,000 passengers a year. Swaziland Airlink, a joint venture between South African Airlink and the Swaziland government, is the only carrier using the airport and only flies to OR Tambo at Johannesburg.

SWACAA has forecast an annual passenger turnover of 250 000 to 300 000 for Sikhuphe (this equates to 822 passengers on average per day), but so far no international airline has said it wants to use the airport.

Media reports in Swaziland suggest the cost of Sikhuphe is about E3 billion (US$300 million) so far.

As recently as October 2013 a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said Sikhuphe International Airport was widely perceived as a 'vanity project' because of its scale and opulence compared with the size and nature of the market it seeks to serve.

In June 2013 an engineer's report was published by to the Mail and Guardian newspaper in South Africa saying the structure of the airport was defective and large jet airlines would not be able to land.

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