The Swaziland Tourist Authority (STA) falsified statistics on the number of passengers using the new King Msawati III Airport (KMIII) to make it look a success when it was not.
And, the deception is part of an ongoing mission of misinformation about the success of the airport that has spanned several year.
Figures for January 2015 were used by Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA), aided by the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati, to state that the airport had defied its critics and was a success.
The STA reported that there were 10,138 passengers departing the airport in January 2015 and 6,592 passengers arriving, making a total of 16,730 passengers.
But these figures were entirely bogus. There are only three flights per day departing the airport and another three arriving. The airport serves only one route – to OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Swaziland Airlink is the only passenger airline that uses the airport. Airlink uses the Embraer J135 aircraft which has a maximum seating capacity of 50.
If every flight was full a maximum of 150 people per day could depart the airport, which would make a maximum of 4,500 per month. The 4,500 is only 44 per cent of the numbers of passengers claimed by STA. The total possible number of passengers either departing or arriving at the airport could not be more than 9,000 in a month: 53 per cent of the figure claimed.
No true figure for the actual number of people travelling by plane is available publically but anecdotal evidence suggests that the planes are rarely much more than two-thirds full, and often a lot less.
King Mswati III Airport was built in a wilderness in Swaziland on the whim of King Mswati, who rules as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. No research was undertaken to determine the need for the airport.
Critics of the airport argued for years that there was no potential for the airport. Major airports already existed less than an hour’s flying time away in South Africa with connecting routes to Swaziland and there was no reason to suspect passengers would want to use KMIII airport as an alternative.
During the 11 years it took to build, the airport was called Sikhuphe, but the name was changed in honour of the King when it officially opened in March 2014.
The airport cost an estimated E2.5 billion (US$250 million) to build.
The Observer on Saturday reported at the time of the opening, ‘The King stated unflinchingly that the airport was not a joke as some pessimists had already hinted that the country does not need such extravagance. He said the completion and commissioning of the airport had proved all doubting Thomases wrong.’
The newspaper added, ‘One thing was clear throughout the King’s address that he was extremely passionate about the project and that it was very close to his heart.’
When it was opened the international media derided the airport as a ‘white elephant’, meaning it was of little use.
In October 2013 a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the 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.
Since it opened only one commercial passenger airline, Swaziland Airlink, which is part-owned by the Swazi Government, has used the Airport. The airline was forced to move from the Matsapha Airport, even though an independent business analysis predicted the airline would go out of business as a result.
No other airline has publically said it wanted to use the airport.
Matsapha airport which handled about 70,000 passengers a year is close to Manzini and Mbabane, the two main cities in Swaziland. The new airport was built in a wilderness about 70km from Mbabane. Once it opened to traffic in September 2014, Matsapha was closed for commercial business. It is now mainly used by King Mswati when he travels in his private luxury jet.
SWACAA had said the KMIII airport would attract 300,000 passengers per year (820 per day on average), raising E7 million (US$700,000) per year in service charges. In the present situation where only a maximum 300 people could travel per day, the total it could ever hope to achieve would be 109,500; only 36 percent of the numbers needed for the airport to reach its target.
The Swazi Observer, which was described as a ‘pure propaganda machine for the royal family’ by the Media Institute of Southern Africa in a report on media freedom in the kingdom, used the bogus figure to talk up the airport’s supposed success.
The newspaper first reported the figure in its Sunday edition on 12 April 2015 and again in its daily edition on 21 April 2015.
The newspaper was determined to mislead its readers about the success of the airport. The Sunday Observer, for example, in a report headlined ‘KMIII Airport surpasses expectations’ said, ‘When it started operating, sceptics were of the view that people would opt to travel by road because of, among other reasons, the distant location of the airport, which is situated about 70 kilometres from Mbabane.
‘However, passengers going through KMIII International Airport have surpassed the numbers that were recorded at the Matsapha Airport.’
The newspaper quoted SWACAA Marketing and Corporate Affairs Director Sabelo Dlamini saying, ‘We are noting that the figures are rising and for us, it points to a brighter future in aviation. It is also an affirmation of the massive work the government of Swaziland has done over the past five years to do right in the civil aviation industry, in particular the construction of an airport facility travellers are happy with.’
The newspaper reported, ‘Dlamini further noted that the drop in numbers that had been projected by critics had not happened at all.’
There has been a long history of misinformation about the potential for success of the airport. It was controversial from the moment the construction was announced in 2003. The International Monetary Fund said the airport should not be built because it would divert funds away from much needed projects to fight poverty in Swaziland.
Today, about seven in ten of King Mswati’s 1.3 million subjects live in abject poverty, with incomes less than US$2 per day, three in ten are so hungry they are medically diagnosed as malnourished and the kingdom has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.
The false promises made about the airport are legion. In November 2013, SWACAA said 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 compared to the E125 million budgeted for free primary school education in Swaziland that year. It was never explained 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.
The people were regularly misled about the opening date of the airport. At one time the King confidently announced it would be open in March 2010. Then his Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini said it would be ready for the FIFA World Cup in neighbouring South Africa in June 2010, but this deadline came and went. SWACAA continued to issue fresh completion dates but these were never met.
Bertram Stewart, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development also misled about the readiness of the airport to open.
In October 2010, Stewart said the airport would be open by the end of that year, but it was not. He misled again in February 2011 when he confidently told media the airport would be completed by June 2011. It was not. He also said a number of top world airlines (that he declined to name) were negotiating to use the airport, but nothing happened.
He returned to the theme two months later in April 2011 when this time he said the airport would be open by December 2011.
There has also been constant misinformation about the prospect of airlines choosing to use the airport.
In October 2009, King Mswati claimed Etihad Airways from the Gulf State of Abu Dhabi was showing ‘deep interest’ in using the airport. Nothing has been heard since.
In May 2011, the Swazi Observer reported Sabelo Dlamini saying, ‘We have established possible routes which we want to market to the operators. Some of the proposed routes from Sikhuphe are Durban, Cape Town, Lanseria Airport in Sandton, Harare and Mozambique.’
In June 2012, he told Swazi media that at least three airlines from different countries had ‘shown interest’ in using the airport, but he declined to name them. He remained optimistic about the prospects for the future and said SWACAA was talking to airlines in other countries as well.
Then in February 2013 SWACAA Director Solomon Dube told media in Swaziland, ‘We are talking to some including Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airline and various Gulf airlines.’
In March 2013 SWACAA claimed five airlines had signed deals to use the airport when it eventually opened, but an investigation by Swazi media Commentary revealed that two of the airlines named did not exist. It also said Botswana Airways would use the airport, but it has not.
In October 2013 SWACAA claimed it had targeted small and medium business travellers to use the airport. It said low-cost airlines were interested in using Sikhuphe for business travellers who might want to fly to nearby countries ‘on a daily basis’.
Now, in April 2015, there are still no prospects of airlines other than Swazi Airlink using the airport.
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