King Mswati III International Airport

P1000738Swaziland’s first international airport was quite close to the clinic in Matsapha. A new airport was built in an isolated spot called Sikhuphe, coming into service last year. It was named King Mswati III International, in honour of the present ruling monarch.

The new airport is very impressive. The white concrete and glass building rises out of the dusty scrubland like a mirage. I’m not sure why this remote spot was chosen for the new airport. It is a long way from the main population hub of Manzinin-Matsapha-Mbabane. It would probably be quicker and cheaper to drive to Jo’burg from Mbabane than driving to KM III IA, and taking a scheduled flight. It may be inconvenient to get to, but it is probably the only international airport which doesn’t charge for parking.

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The exterior walls flanking the main building are painted with Swazi emblems, shields and cattle. The surrounding grass lawns resemble green baize. Massive glass doors slide open automatically as you approach the entrance hall. It is really pleasant inside, bright and airy. The special glass keeps the building cool by reflecting the heat. Sadly, a couple of the huge panes of glass are broken. I pondered how this could have happened and came up with the idea that pebbles might have been hurled out by rotatory grass mowers.

On the interior walls there are massive billboards advertising Swaziland’s treasures. There is a tiny medical centre (just in case you arrive from Asia with MERS) and a small bar-restaurant. One door is marked with the symbol of a teacup and a sign “Staff Only” – pretty self-explanatory.

Although it may be technically correct to call it “international”, the only city you can fly to directly from Swaziland is Jo’burg. Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, is just three hours away by road, so not surprisingly, there is no demand for an air connection. Harare and Durban may be a profitable routes in the future. But the three large parking spaces for aircraft in front of the terminal are empty for 99% of the time. South African Airlink has a few flights a day, using small 20-seater jets flying the one hour hop across the border. There is one runway, but it is very long. Perhaps the planners foresaw larger jets or military planes landing at the airport in the future.

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This might be an “urban myth” but I heard that when the new airport first opened, a plane from Jo’burg arrived but needed refuelling. The waiting passengers boarded the plane only to hear the pilot saying that there was no avgas at the new airport. There was still a fuel depot at the Matsapha airport. No one could contact the driver of a tanker to transport fuel to Sikhuphe. The captain took off, having decided he probably had enough avgas vapour to get from Sikhuphe to Matsapha, where he could refuel. The people on board must have been praying furiously and the flight was successful. How did “put aviation fuel in the new storage tanks” get missed off the checklist for opening the new airport?

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