8 January 2014

Swaziland: Flights of Fancy At King's Airport

analysis

Solomon Dube, Director of the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA), took a flight of fancy this week when he claimed that The Royal Swazi National Airways Corporation (RSNAC) will fly to 10 countries from Sikhuphe Airport, which has yet to be opened.

Dube told local media that RSNAC, which at present has no aircraft and no routes, would fly to nine destinations in Africa and one in Asia.

The Times Sunday newspaper said the airline 'will fly to destinations such as the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, Rwanda, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Botswana among others'.

The newspaper quoted Dube saying the Swazi Government had signed 'Bilateral Air Service Agreements' with the destination countries.

The Times reported, 'Dube said the signing of the accord meant that the Swaziland airline, which also used to be called Lijubantsendzele, will fly to these countries and also the destination countries airlines would also fly into Swaziland.'

But, either Dube is not telling the full truth or the Times has made a blunder. This is because 'Bilateral Air Service Agreements' are accords that allow aircraft of one nation to fly over airspace of another: they do not mean that airlines automatically have rights to land at airports and run commercial routes into the country.

Sikhuphe is the airport that for the past 10 years has been under construction in a Swazi wilderness, about 80 km from the kingdom's capital, Mbabane. Despite claims over the past years that international airlines are keen to fly into Sikhuphe, no agreements have been signed.

No independent study on the need for Sikhuphe Airport was ever undertaken and the main impetus behind its construction has been King Mswati III, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch. He believes the airport will lend credibility to his dream to make Swaziland a 'First World' nation by 2022.

This is not the first time SWACAA has claimed a false success for Sikhuphe. The date for the airport's opening in 2010 was missed and has been put back a number of times since. In November 2013, SWACAA said the airport was now completed and operational, but no flights have been in or out since.

Also in November 2013, SWACAA confirmed that the Swazi Government was ready to recreate the RSNAC and would set about purchasing a 100-seater jet, at a cost estimated by the Times of Swaziland of E700 million (US$70 million). This compares to the E125 million budgeted for free primary school education in Swaziland this year. It is not clear where the money to buy the aircraft would come from.

If Dube is correct and RSNAC is set to fly to 10 destinations, the airline would probably need a minimum of 10 aircraft to service the routes. For that to happen, assuming that the estimated cost of the aircraft is accurate, Swaziland would have to spend about E7 billion on aircraft. Such a sum of money would bankrupt the kingdom. To put the cost in context earlier this week the Central Bank of Swaziland announced that the kingdom's Gross Official Reserves were E8.24 billion at the month ended November 2013.

Media reports in Swaziland suggest the cost of Sikhuphe has been about E3 billion so far from an initial budget of E500 million.

As long ago as 2003, the International Monetary Fund said Sikhuphe 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.

There is no obvious need for the new airport. 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.

Swaziland's present airport at Matsapha only carries about 70,000 passengers a year.

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