Swazi Airlink, the only airline lined up to use the new King Mswati III Airport in Swaziland, would go out of business if it is forced to move, an independent study revealed.
Swazi Airlink at present runs a service from Swaziland’s Matsapha Airport to Johannesburg. But the airline, which is a joint venture including the Swaziland Government, has been told it must leave Matsapha and operate out of the new airport, formerly known as Sikhuphe.
Matsapha is ten minutes’ drive from Swaziland’s commercial capital, Manzini, but Sikhuphe is about 70 km away in the wilderness in the east of the kingdom.
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.
He said Swazi Airlink had to first notify its customers about the move. He said he was not sure when Airlink would relocate to the new airport.
Meanwhile, no international airline has expressed interest in using the airport which has cost an estimated E3 billion (US$300 million) so far to build.
The airport has been dubbed King Mswati’s ‘vanity project’ by critics. King Mswati rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. The King has 13 palaces and a personal fortune once estimated by Forbes Magazine to be US$200 million. Meanwhile, seven in ten of his subjects live in abject poverty with an income of less than US$2 a day. Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.