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Partnerships key to Swaziland revival

Posted 23 March 2018 · Add Comment

The Swaziland aviation landscape could be on the brink of change, as former national flag-carrier Royal Swazi National Airways considers resuming flights, creating uncertainty for joint-venture incumbent Swaziland Airlink. Victoria Moores reports.

Royal Swazi National Airways started operations in 1978. Through the years, the airline operated central, eastern and southern African routes using a Fokker F28, a Fokker 100, a Vickers Viscount and a Boeing 737-200. Destinations included Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Gaborone, Harare, Johannesburg, Lusaka, Maputo, Maseru and Nairobi.
However, once sanctions on South Africa were lifted in the mid-1990s, passenger numbers dropped.
The Swaziland Government decided to restructure the airline and ultimately sold off the last two aircraft, triggering Royal Swazi National Airways to cease airline operations in 1999. The company lived on and still exists today, but only as an airline ticket sales agency and a fuel supplier.
In 1999, the government formed a new joint-venture airline, Swaziland Airlink, in partnership with South African regional carrier SA Airlink. Swaziland took a majority stake in the JV, with SA Airlink holding the remainder.
Today Swaziland Airlink operates one Embraer ERJ135, leased from SA Airlink, on a single route between Manzini and Johannesburg. “We tried other routes in central and east Africa but they didn’t work for us,” Swaziland Airlink general manager Teddy Mavuso said. “Our one route feeds into Johannesburg, giving us the ability to connect on to other destinations. That seems to work for us.”
Swaziland Airlink uses SA Airlink’s air operator’s certificate and is able to bring in replacement aircraft from the SA Airlink fleet when it hits technical problems. “We can draw from the Airlink pool and they give us aircraft within a reasonable time. It has worked effectively over the years,” Mavuso said.
The airline is also profitable. Over the 17 years that Swaziland Airlink has been flying, Mavuso said there have only been two years of losses.
In 2016 it was a bumper year because the King of Swaziland chaired the Southern African Development Community (SADC), bringing a stream of conferences to the country. “There was sharp growth but the following year has been down. Our loads have not been as good. We are waiting to see the figures,” Mavuso said.
Further turbulence is looming, because the Swaziland Government is considering reviving Royal Swazi National Airways as an airline.
“We have been waiting for them to give us direction for almost a year now. It’s crippling for us. The directors of Swaziland Airlink are unable forge ahead with strategic plans when they don’t know what’s coming,” Mavuso said. “We would love to see growth and continued cooperation. Airlink is intent on continuing the partnership. It is quite difficult to understand why they want to resuscitate the airline.”
The situation is unclear, but Mavuso said the government may use a revived version of the old airline to perform charter flights, which fall outside Swaziland Airlink’s remit.
In late 2017, the Swaziland Government appointed a new CEO for Royal Swazi National Airways. They picked the old airline’s former chief pilot and flight operations manager, Captain President Dhlamini, to head the company. Dhlamini has a foot in both camps; he has also served as chief pilot for Swaziland Airlink.
“We will be going into ground-handling and we continue to study the market to see if there is an opportunity to go back into the airline industry,” Dhlamini said. “We are looking to forge partnerships and get airborne again as an airline but we will only do that if it’s viable. I’ve only been in office five weeks. We need to sit down and do the study to see if it is possible or not. The issue of us competing with Swaziland Airlink doesn’t exist for now. That decision will be taken by our shareholder.”
In 2014, Swaziland opened a new airport serving the country’s main city of Manzini, because the original airport was surrounded by mountains and the runway there could not be extended. However, Swaziland Airlink is currently the only operator and the government is keen to attract more airlines. Lufthansa Consulting has been brought in to advise on service development.
“The airport is strategically located, close to key tourist attractions like game reserves. The government is in the process of an air services development programme, inviting other airlines to come in, and they plan to build an aerotropolis around the airport to bring people in,” Dhlamini said.
If Royal Swazi National Airways does fly again, Dhlamini recognises the value of partnerships. “These days, it makes more sense to do partnerships, even as a big airline. You can’t do it alone; you must form some sort of alliance.”

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