After claiming last month (April 2015) that Swaziland’s white elephant King Mswati III (KMIII) Airport was a huge success and had confounded its critics, an aviation boss in the kingdom now says it is not doing well because Swazi people are too poor to fly.
The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported twice in April 2015 that the Swaziland Tourist Authority (STA) said there were 10,138 passengers departing the airport in January 2015 and 6,592 passengers arriving, making a total of 16,730 passengers. If these figures were repeated each month of the year, 200,760 passengers would travel through the airport in a year.
But, Swazi Media Commentary exposed these statistics as 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.
Despite the obviously fraudulent figures the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) Marketing and Corporate Affairs Director Sabelo Dlamini said in April 2015, ‘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.’
The 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, has not admitted to its readers it published fake figures on the airport’s popularity.
On Tuesday (12 May 2015), the Observer reported SWACAA Director General Solomon Dube saying ‘only 70,000’ people per year used the airport. He did not give any evidence to support the figures. The 70,000 passengers represent 35 percent of the 200,760 claimed last month.
SWACAA had previously said the King Mswati Airport, formerly known as Sikhuphe, which opened in March 2014 would need at least 300,000 passengers a year to break-even.
Dube told the Observer that Swazi people did not fly because they could not afford to. This should come as no surprise to him since seven in ten of the 1.3 million people in the kingdom have incomes of less than US$2 per day. He said if more people used the airport air tickets to South Africa could be reduced to E500 (US$50), without stating this would represent about a month’s income for most Swazi people.
The Times of Swaziland reported on Tuesday (12 May 2015) Dube also announced that Egyptair had offered Swaziland a 268-seater aircraft. The newspaper reported him saying, ‘the main objective of this initiative is to increase airplane passengers by up to 200,000’.
The Times reported, ‘Dube said courtesy of well-managed diplomatic relations between the two States, Swaziland had been offered to utilise services of one of Egyptair’s flights to transport passengers between Swaziland and South Africa for 10 hours a day. He said using the flight for at least 10 hours a day could translate to about five or seven flights to the neighbouring republic, on a daily basis.’
This claim from Dube is one of a long line of empty promises made about the attractiveness of the airport.
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.
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 General 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 it for business travellers who might want to fly to nearby countries ‘on a daily basis’.
KMIII 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.
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.
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