Swaziland’s King Mswati III airport dubbed a vanity project for the King and a white elephant has failed to attract any new airlines in the four years since it opened, the kingdom’s civil aviation authority has admitted.
This was despite continued claims that airlines from across the world wanted to use the airport at Sikhuphe built at an estimated cost of US$250 million in the wilderness in southeastern Swaziland about 70 km from a major city.
Sabelo Dlamini, Swaziland Civil Aviation Authority (SWACAA) Marketing and Communications Director, told the Observer on Saturday newspaper (14 July 2018) a number of presentations had been made to airline services, but so far none had agreed to fly into the airport.
The Swazi Government also failed to launch its own airline called Swazi Airways. It was claimed it would fly to 10 countries once it had become fully operational. The destinations were the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, Rwanda, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Botswana. The airline closed for business in April 2017 when it became clear the tiny kingdom could not afford a single aircraft. Even so, E20 million (US$2 million) had been spent on leasing a 29-year-old Boeing 737-300 that never once flew commercially. In addition, an estimated E750,000 a month was paid to 23 airline staff who had no work to do.
There has 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.
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 did 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’.
In March 2016 Minister of Public Works and Transport Lindiwe Dlamini said Air Mauritius would fly from the airport.
In January 2016 the Swazi Observer reported Swazi Air was ready to fly to Dubai, Cape Town, India and Durban.\
KMIII Airport was built on the whim of King Mswati, who rules Swaziland as one of the world’s last absolute monarchs. No research was undertaken to determine the need for the airport.
Critics 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 sought 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.