It may take up to three years before international airlines use Swaziland’s Sikhuphe Airport that is set to open on 7 March 2014. If they decide to use it at all.
No airlines have signed agreements to fly in and out the airport that is estimated to have cost at least E3 billion (US$300 million) to build and is at least four years behind schedule opening. Critics have dubbed the airport a ‘vanity project’ for King Mswati III.
The King, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, will conduct the opening ceremony himself, but global dignitaries are not expected to attend.
It has been known for some years that airlines are not willing to use Sikhuphe once it opens. And, if there had been interest from airlines outside Swaziland, it would take them at least three years before they could be ready to use the airport.
Sabelo Dlamini, the Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) Marketing and Corporate Affairs Director, revealed in June 2012 that it could take three years for an airline to actually start using the airport once it had decided to do so. ‘Normally, airline operators need about three years to prepare for such an exercise.’ He said at the time that Swaziland had approached three potential airlines, which he declined to name, and they were ready to operate at Sikhuphe.
Nothing has happened since Dlamini made his statement in 2012 and no airline outside Swaziland has announced it will use Sikhuphe.
Dlamini also revealed in 2012 that no agreement had been reached with Swaziland’s neighbours South Africa and Mozambique about which routes planes would be allowed to take in and out of Sikhuphe. Again, no announcement has been made that this issue has been resolved.
The only airline expected to use the airport is Swazi Airlink, which presently flies out of Swaziland’s existing airport at Matsapha. Airlink is a joint venture between the Swazi Government and South African Airlines and flies one route into Johannesburg.
In February 2013 Barnabas Dlamini, Swaziland’s Prime Minister, said, ‘Swazi Airlink will have to use Sikhuphe as it will be our international airport.’
However, in 2011 Airlink had said it did not want to use Sikhuphe, preferring to stay at Matsapha.
There is no news on what will happen to Matsapha Airport after Sikhuphe opens. Matspaha is an underused airport situated minutes away by road from Manzini, Swaziland’s commercial capital. It is also close to Mbabane, the Swazi capital. Sikhuphe, meanwhile, is in the wilderness of eastern Swaziland, about 80km from Mbabane.
Critics of Sikhuphe, who have dubbed the multi-million dollar airport project ‘King Mswati’s vanity project’, 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.
Completion of the airport has been delayed for years. King Mswati had announced it would be open in time for the FIFA World Cup, played in neighbouring South Africa in 2010.
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.
Meanwhile, the King lives a lavish lifestyle, including a personal fortune, once estimated by Forbes magazine to be US$200 million, 13 palaces, a private jet and fleets of top-of-the range Mercedes and BMW cars.