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Tuesday, 8 February 2011


The Sikhuphe International Airport presently being built will have no taxiway.

That means the airport will not be able to handle large numbers of planes taking off and landing.

And this will severely limit the number of passengers and amount of cargo the airport can handle when (if?) it opens.

Until now, we have been told that the airport, a vanity project of King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, will be a major hub for the whole of the southern African region. That means intercontinental planes will land at Sikhuphe and passengers will transfer to other aircraft to complete their journey to nearby countries. Some passengers will disembark and stay in Swaziland.

To handle large numbers of passengers, the airport needs to be able to get planes to fly off quickly and land quickly. Once one plane is safely on the ground after landing it drives out of the way on the taxiway to allow another plane to land or take off on the runway it has just vacated.

One of the most commonly known types of taxiway is the parallel taxiway, which is narrower than the conventional runways and runs alongside it. But with no taxiway, once a plane lands it will have to back up along the runway to take passengers to the terminal, thereby blocking the runway for any other plane wanting to land or take off.

Another piece of evidence that suggests we may have been misled about the capacity of Sikhuphe can be found in promotional literature published jointly by Swaziland’s Ministry of Economic Planning and Development and Vector Management Limited.

It says Sikhuphe International airport ‘will be able to handle unprecedented volumes of international passenger and freight traffic in and out of the region’.

‘Unprecedented’ means ‘never before seen’, but the same leaflet says a 1,000 sq m cargo facility at the airport is designed to handle ‘5,000 tonnes of mixed cargo per annum’. Only 5,000 tonnes in a whole year – I very much hope that’s a misprint.

And there’s more evidence that Sikhuphe will turn out to be very small beer indeed. In July 2010, the Times of Swaziland, the only independent daily newspaper in the kingdom, reported the airport was expecting to handle up to 300,000 passengers per year and the terminal was designed to handle about 300 people per hour. Three hundred thousand people per year works out at 822 people per day on average: not even enough to fill two ‘Jumbo Jet’ planes.

By contrast, in South Africa, Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, less than an hour’s flight from Sikhuphe, caters for more than 17 million passengers each year. Cape Town International Airport recorded passenger numbers of 7.8 million in 2008-2009. Even Blomfentein Airport, which has no pretensions at all, handled 408,000 passengers in 2008-2009.

There is a prediction that when all the bills are in and Sikhuphe eventually opens it will have cost $US1 billion – that works out at $US1,000 for every man, woman and child in the kingdom.

So is Sikhuphe International Airport a big waste of money? You decide.

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