Only 194 passengers a day on average have used Swaziland’s new US$250 million King Mswati III Airport since commercial flights started in October 2014, official figures have revealed.
If the average continues over a full year the airport is likely to reach only 23 percent of the 300,000 passengers needed for it to be able to breakeven financially.
That shortfall amounts to 230,000 passengers per year.
In the first four months of its operation since October 2014, the airport, formerly known as Sikhuphe, saw 11,388 passengers arrive and 11,952 depart. If these figures remain consistent across a full year a total of 70,020 passengers would have used the airport. This total is in line with the 60,000 to 70,000 passengers per year that used the Matsapha Airport, which King Mswati III Airport replaced.
According to official Swazi Government figures, King Mswati III Airport needs at least 300,000 passengers per year to breakeven financially.
The airport opened in March 2014 but only received its first commercial flights the following October. The only airline to use the airport has been the part-government-controlled Swaziland Airlink. No other airline has said it will use KMIII which was built in a wilderness about 70km from the main towns of Mbabane and Manzini.
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. The airport was built on the instruction of King Mswati who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch. No needs analysis was completed before building began.
The Airport took more than 10 years to build and opened at least four years behind schedule.
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. The full cost of the airport is not known, but estimates have put it at E2.5 billion (US$250 million).
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.
In an analysis of the airport’s future, published in March 2014, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) said there were still many serious questions about the sustainability of the airport including, ‘how will it lure additional airlines to use its services, how will it compete with the airports in Johannesburg and Maputo, and will it ever get close to its full capacity of 360,000 passengers each year - which is more than five times as many as currently used by the existing airport at Matsapha’.
The passenger figures were released by the Swaziland Tourism Authority and published in the Observer Sunday, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati.
According to the newspaper, ‘On average, arrivals at KMIII International Airport have been averaging over 1,000 [per month] since it started operating; 1,698 in October, 1,693 in November and 1,405 in December while outbound passengers recorded were 587 in October, 826 in November and 401 in December.’
It added, ‘According to data compiled by the Swaziland Tourism Authority (STA) in collaboration with the Department of Immigration, in January  an unprecedented 10,138 passengers left Swaziland through KMIII while 6,592 arrivals were recorded.’
The newspaper, which was called a ‘pure propaganda machine for the royal family’ by the Media Institute of Southern Africa in a report on media freedom in the kingdom, gave no explanation for the apparent nine-fold increase in passenger numbers in a single month between December 2014 and January 2015.
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