22 August 2014

Swaziland: Airlink Forced to Use King's Airport

The Airline part owned by the Swazi Government is to be forced to move its operations to the King Mswati III Airport, which opened in March 2014 but has not seen a single commercial aircraft land since.

Swaziland Airlink General Manager Teddy Mavuso put on a brave face at a press conference on Wednesday (20 August 2014) when he announced that the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) had told the airline company that its present base Matsapha airport would close and all commercial operations must use the new airport, formerly known as Sikhuphe, from 30 September 2014.

Sikhuphe which was renamed King Mswati III Airport in honour of the kingdom's autocratic monarch is situated in a wilderness in the south eastern part of the tiny kingdom. Matsapha, the airport that is to close as a result, is close to both the kingdom's capital Mbabane and the main commercial city, Manzini.

Mavuso told the press conference, 'As an airline we are the first to admit that change is very difficult to accede to and manage, and yet, on the other hand, change is very necessary to allow for the reorientation of the mindset and the flexibility to explore various alternative solutions in support of developing strategies that are intended to foster growth in the country's economy.'

He added, 'Swaziland Airlink undertakes to rise to the occasion in this respect and will exert all possible effort to counter and mitigate any challenges that stand in the way of success in the process.'

Airlink, which is a joint venture between Swaziland and South African Airways, has consistently opposed moving from Matsapha to the new airport. At present it runs a service from Matsapha to Johannesburg. Matsapha is ten minutes' drive from Swaziland's commercial capital, Manzini, but Sikhuphe is about 70 km away.

A 2009 study commissioned by Airlink found air travellers would rather drive to Johannesburg than take the trek to fly from Sikhuphe.

Business Report newspaper in South Africa quoted the study, 'The road journey takes three hours including a stop at the border post. Total travel time from Matsapha, including getting to the airport, waiting, flying, going through customs and retrieving baggage at Johannesburg and taking ground transport to the destination is on average three hours 30 minutes.

'From [King Mswati III airport] the journey in each direction will take four hours 20 minutes. This will make air travel from a morning or a day trip unviable as the time taken for travel will amount to eight hours 40 minutes, whereas road travel will take six hours.

The study added, 'With 60 percent of passengers on this route being point-to-point travellers, it is estimated that as much as 40 percent of these passengers and 20 percent of connecting passengers, or 32 percent of current passengers, will opt for road travel.

'The risk of a move to [King Mswati III Airport] is unpalatable considering that in a realistic scenario the business will run at a loss... leaving the business unsustainable and an inevitable failure.'

At present Matsapha has about 70,000 passengers a year. King Mswati III Airport needs 400,000 passengers a year to break even.

In 2013, the Swaziland Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini, who was unelected by the people, but personally appointed by King Mswati, told newspaper editors, 'Swazi Airlink will have to use Sikhuphe as it will be our international airport.'

After the official opening of the airport on 7 March 2014, Solomon Dube, Director of the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA), told local media Swazi Airlink had specifically asked not to operate from the airport for now.

Sikhuphe has cost at least E3 billion (US$300 million) so far to build and is widely regarded outside of Swaziland as a vanity project for the king. Most of the money to build it came from the Swazi taxpayer, even though seven in ten of King Mswati's subjects live in abject poverty with incomes of less than US$2 a day.

No independent study on the need for Sikhuphe Airport was ever undertaken and the main impetus behind its construction has been King Mswati. He believes the airport will lend credibility to his dream to make Swaziland a 'First World' nation by 2022.

In 2003, when the plan to build the airport was announced, 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.

As recently as October 2013, a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said Sikhuphe 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 his press conference Mavuso said although Matsapha Airport would be closed for commercial purposes, King Mswati would still be able to fly his private jet from there.

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