Mbabane - Swaziland’s new R3bn international airport, located in the dusty hamlet of Sikhupe 90 minutes from Mbabane, became fully operational last week.
The problem is that no airline wants to go there.
“The airport is finished and ready for use,” Solomon Dube, Director of the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) told the Swazi media.
But the facility, which has no official name until the airport’s patron, King Mswati III, officiates at its dedication, sits idle.
The airport was built to rival Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo International Airport (ORTIA) as a regional air hub.
Originally, the facility was to have opened in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup games in South Africa. More than a dozen deadlines for completion were missed.
The airport can accommodate the newest wide-bodied jets, but efforts to bring international air carriers to Swaziland have failed because the so-called regional air hub has no air links to any other destination.
“The Swazi Government has forgotten one important point: The only reason passengers would fly to Swaziland was because the kingdom was their final destination. If they wanted to go to some other country in southern Africa they would fly into airports in neighbouring South Africa and take already existing routes to their intended destination,” said commentator Richard Rooney on his Swazi Media blog.
Government built the new airport without a business plan because King Mswati wanted a new airport to help fulfil his decree that Swaziland become a First World Country by 2022.
The new airport is built to accommodate up to 400 000 air passengers annually, but only 70 000 air passengers flew in and out of Swaziland in 2012.
Now government must create an airline before the airport can attract any business.
“[European and Asian airlines] tell us they do not want their important passengers to be stranded in a Third World Country and therefore if we want them to use our airport we should also have a national airline which they would work with them [taking passengers] to places like Zimbabwe and Botswana for example,” Dube said.
Swaziland Airlink, which is majority owned by government, is the only air carrier currently serving Swaziland, and will not move from its current location at the Matsapha airport located between Manzini and Mbabane.
“Sikhupe is too far. It’s faster from someone from Mbabane to just drive to Johannesburg. They will have to force us out of Matsapha by closing the current airport,” said a source with Swaziland Airlink.
The airline only flies to and from Johannesburg. Other regional airlines that could transport passengers from overseas to destinations within Southern Africa have declined to fly to Swaziland because ORTIA is only 45 minutes away.
This leaves government with no other option than to create its own airline or else utilise the new airport solely as the home of King Mswati’s private jet.
The last national airline, Swaziland Airways, went bankrupt 20 years ago due to low passenger volume and mismanagement. The airline was a regional airline, flying to various SADC capitals.
The new airline would require at least three aircraft to service routes to other Southern African destinations.
The cost of the aircraft alone would exceed government’s spending on national education in 2014.
Costs of building and maintaining an airline company would be added to this.
- African Eye News Service