21 January 2014

Swaziland: Swazi King's Airport Has No Taxiway

It is increasingly difficult to believe a word the Swaziland Government says about the kingdom's Sikhuphe International Airport.

The airport is being built in a wilderness about 80 km from the Swazi capital, Mbabane. In November 2013, it was announced that it was completed and ready to open as soon as King Mswati III gave the word.

Now, the Times Sunday newspaper in Swaziland has reported, 'Just when it was declared ready for use, it was discovered that there was no taxiway.'

It added, 'Contractors are now busy constructing the taxiway.'

However, it has been known for at nearly three years that the airport had no taxiway.

In February 2011, Swazi Media Commentary revealed this and reported that without a taxiway the airport would not be able to handle large numbers of planes taking off and landing, thereby severely limiting the number of passengers and amount of cargo the airport could handle if it ever opened.

To handle large numbers of passengers, the airport needs to be able to get planes to fly off quickly and land quickly. Once one plane is safely on the ground after landing it drives out of the way on the taxiway to allow another plane to land or take off on the runway it has just vacated.

But, with no taxiway, once a plane has landed it will have to back up along the runway to take passengers to the terminal, thereby blocking the runway for any other plane wanting to land or take off.

The Times in its report quoted Prince Hlangusemphi, Minister of Economic Planning and Development saying the taxiway was not on the original plan for the airport.

He said the taxiway would be completed 'very soon'. Then, he said, the airport could be officially opened by King Mswati.

When that date will be has not been announced. Sikhuphe has been under construction for at least 10 years. The date for the airport's opening in 2010 was missed and has been put back a number of times since. In November 2013, the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) said the airport was now completed and operational, but no flights have been in or out since.

The Sikhuphe project has been the subject of much misinformation from the King, the government he hand picks, and civil aviation officials in Swaziland.

They regularly announce new deadlines for completion and opening of the airport, but these dates come and go and Sikhuphe remains unfinished. No explanations for the missed deadlines are usually given. When they are they often relate to claims that 'bad weather' hampered construction work.

No independent study on the need for Sikhuphe Airport was ever undertaken and the main impetus behind its construction has been King Mswati, 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.

Despite claims over the past years that international airlines are keen to fly into Sikhuphe, no agreements have been signed.

In November 2013, SWACAA confirmed that the Swazi Government was ready to recreate the defunct Royal Swazi National Airways Corporation (RSNAC0 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.

SWACAA said RSNAC would fly to 10 destinations in Africa and Asia. Observers estimated RSNAC would probably need a minimum of 10 aircraft to service the routes.

For that to happen, 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 the Central Bank of Swaziland has estimated 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.

Critics of Sikhuphe have argued for years that there is no potential for the 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, situated near a main road between Swaziland's capital city Mbabane and the kingdom's commercial centre, Manzini, only carries about 70,000 passengers a year.

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 defected and large jet airlines would not be able to land.

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