A white elephant for Swaziland’s jumbo jets?

National airports are the primary gateways to nations today. From the design of a terminal building to the swiftness of baggage retrieval, airports give visitors an all-important first impression of a country’s modernity and capacity to provide services.

They are also prestige projects for governments, however, which can lead to problems. Take the situation in Swaziland, for example.

Last week, King Mswati the Third announced that construction on the proposed Millennium Airport was to go ahead in his country, against recommendations by the International Monetary Fund that everything should be done to cut non-essential spending in the impoverished nation. (Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy.)

Swazi officials insist there is a need for a new international airport capable of accommodating aircraft that are large — and likely to get even bigger over time. However, no business plan has ever been publicly presented to show how the investment would earn a return.

The two commercial air carriers that currently service Swaziland say they have no intention of relocating to the small eastern community of Sikhupe, where the airport is being built. Both want to continue operating out of an existing airport at Matsapha, located near Manzini — the kingdom’s commercial hub and most populous urban centre.

“When a country plans a new airport, there needs to be evidence of commercial viability,” says Charles Magongo, the manager of an airfreight business at the Matsapha Industrial Estate in Swaziland, adding “With so many new airports around Southern Africa, there will be competition.”

Certainly, there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of runway space at the moment.

Johannesburg International airport in South Africa’s main commercial centre, about 45 minutes by air from Swaziland, has just completed renovations on some of its terminal buildings.

The port city of Durban in South Africa, some 20 minutes east of Swaziland, has also revamped its airport facility — while renovations are proceeding at the airport in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. This facility is ten minutes by air from Sikhupe.

Possibly a greater threat is the new Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (KMI), which boasts of the world’s largest thatched roof ‒ and which offers quick tourist access to South Africa’s renowned Kruger game reserve in the east of the country.

The Swazi government is marketing its Millennium Airport as a facility that visitors to the Kruger Park would find more convenient to use than Johannesburg International. This is despite the fact that many chartered aircraft now fly directly to KMI, bypassing Johannesburg.

Environmental concerns have also come into play as concerns the Millennium Airport.

Sikhupe is located near Swaziland’s largest game park, Hlane, as well as the Mkhaya facility where a number of endangered animals are housed. Conservationists have noted that the flight paths of various rare species of eagles and vultures will cut across those of aircraft using the Millennium Airport ‒ with disastrous consequences for the birds.

A government official who declined to be named insists that the new airport will pay its way through making Swaziland more attractive to foreign investors.

“Business opportunities have to be created. Investment in infrastructure pays off in new industries, more tourists, more hard currency — and greater tax revenues to be spent on poverty alleviation programmes,” he noted.

Authorities have also scaled back on the airport’s size, and thus its price tag. While the facility was to have cost about $276-million, it now comes in at an estimated $84-million.

However, technological advancements in cargo haulage may frustrate government’s plans, by making the new airport less of a draw card for business.

“Anything that had to be transported by air can now be transported by land and sea, with the exception of cut flowers, because they are delicate,” says Marc Sveningsen, director of Express Cargo in Swaziland.

“Fruit that has to be rushed to market before it ripens once had to be air-lifted. Now there are special cargo containers which are not only refrigerated, but the oxygen is sucked out and replaced by nitrogen, which slows the ripening process,” he adds.

Such containers are fitted onto trucks, and placed in ship cargo holds. Both means of transportation are cheaper than air.

As Willie Stuart, owner of the Speedy Overboarder road freight service in Johannesburg, said: “In Swaziland and Zimbabwe our trucks are faster than airfreight, because of customs delays at the airport. We are distributing packages to customers in towns by truck while air freight packages are still stuck at the airport.”

Spending on the airport must also been seen against a backdrop of pressing social needs in Swaziland. At present, about a third of the country’s citizens require food aid, while Aids is cutting a swathe through the population. With the basic requirements of so many Swazis not being met, can big-ticket public works projects be justified?

Airport renovation and construction is clearly the order of the day in a number of African countries, though — witness Kenya’s intention to rehabilitate its aging national airport near the capital, Nairobi, and the opening of an expansive glass and steel terminal in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

With state-of-the-art facilities sprouting elsewhere, Swaziland may be loath to give up its own airport ambitions. — IPS

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James Hall
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