By Jabu Matsebula
Everyone must fly. And so they shall if Eswatini Air (EA) which launches on Sunday have its way. The airline which is 45 years old, is returning to the sky after taking a rest for 24 years. This time, the oracles suggest auspicious conditions for a relaunch, provided they do the right things right.
Covid-19 is a terrible memory everyone wishes they could forget. But as they say, every dark cloud has a silver lining – and so it was with the pandemic. EmaSwati generally rarely worry about anything. Why should they? Anything they need, they will get, from South Africa. If it’s food, South Africa will bring it. If it’s medicine, they will fill the shelves. If it’s education, applications will be accepted.
Big brother South Africa has always been so good that emaSwati learn from an early age not to worry because they are deputy South Africans holding favoured cousin status with walk-in-and-out rights in the republic.
Then Covid-19 came, first to South Africa, and naturally also, to Eswatini. What no one ever anticipated then happened. When the world panicked and everyone looked inwards to protect themselves, emaSwati were so surprised when they found themselves outside shut its borders.
None was more traumatized than parents whose children were caught off guard as they rushed to the safety of their home country. Many who converged in Nairobi were eventually rescued in an unprecedented airlift using His Majesty’s jet. That was not the end of it.
“We were caught with a large consignment worth several millions in exports to Europe,” rued Judy Nixon who coordinates the Fairtrade market for Eswatini products. The stranded consignment ranged from handicrafts and artworks to gourmet sauces that needed to be transported to South Africa and flown to Europe.
Covid-19 provided a practical example that showed that a national airline is a serious business necessity, not a decorative luxury as is usually believed.
“Everyone must fly.”
Whatever we can say, nothing will change the fact that ours is a small country, so however we may feel, “small may be beautiful”, it does not pay the bills.
Buses and airlines share a similar challenge – like all businesses, they need economies of scale. The airline must sell all the available seats in the cabin to see a profit. Yet anyone that has flown the KMIII International Airport (Sikhuphe) -Johannesburg route will attest to extremely its lean pickings, it is common for some flights to come in and depart with only a few passengers.
Oftentimes on the outward trip from Johannesburg, Eswatini Air will roll out its smallest baby plane for a symbolic trip to the Kingdom.
At the same time, whatever the political consideration, the airline is a huge cost to public funds.
Everything necessary for its success should be done even though success however is contingent on several known factors. Key among these is respect for technical competence and industry experience. Airline management is a highly specialized technical business that requires space for qualified professionals to make professional decisions and be held accountable. This quality has not been always respected.
In its previous lifetime, Royal Swazi elevated its management into the capable hands of a high-level traditional chief. Whatever his other qualifications, the airline respectfully folded under him and died.
In the new normal, President (that’s his Christian name) Dhlamini is responsible for Eswatini Air’s vision direction. He is a respected pilot who cut his milk teeth at Royal Swazi, flying everything from the Arava ‘flying egg’ to the Fokker 28 and its successor the F100 before moving to South Africa.
As CEO, he has the keen sight and relevant experience of domestic dynamics to keep the enterprise on an even keel. To his added credit, he is one of the few with strong enough nerves to have regularly guided planes through the porridge-thick fog to hop over the Ntondozi hills and safely land without skimming the top of the pineapple crop at Matsapha.
The business challenge of extracting profitability from operations will lie with Xavier Masule. He comes from Air Namibia. For Eswatini Air, he will need to quickly acquire the creative courting skills of a master polygamist to lure passengers to his route.
At face value, it is difficult to see what magic Eswatini Air leaders can perform to pull the rabbit of profitability out of the hat. Yet, perhaps we shouldn’t despair. There are important clues in Eswatini Air’s airfares, confirming their belief that ‘everyone must fly.’ Their introductory rack rate is E1300 for a one-way ticket to Johannesburg (or to Durban from May). While that might succeed to poach some passengers from the Kombis, it is far from sufficient to sustain an airline.
However, if you look closer at their proposed destinations, you might see some logic. They start by flying to Johannesburg on Sunday, which is no surprise – that route is a platform for showing the flag. The next scheduled destination, in two weeks, is not Durban. It is Harare. Eswatini Air intends to squeeze this route hard, throwing four return flights a week on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
But Why Harare?
One of the enduring legacies of President Robert Mugabe was to instil a culture of hard work and education. He developed Zimbabwe and put successive generations through rigorous quality education for people with an excellent attitude toward work. Zimbabweans are so educated that if you threw a stone into a crowd in Harare, you might hit a medical doctor.
The Zimbabwe economy can not absorb all its skilled human capital, so it quietly exports them into the region when they assume professional responsibilities in all sectors. You will never know how many Zimbabweans there are in the diaspora until you visit the Beitbridge border.
In Eswatini you are likely to meet Dlaminis, Masangos, Mabuzas, Nyamanes etc as doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals. Because many of them speak perfect siSwati you can hardly tell they are not.
It’s not hard to see Eswatini Air eyeing Mozambique which has an even bigger population of Zimbabweans. Sikhuphe is only 120 km from Maputo which is 66km from the 24-hour Mhlumeni border.
Once Zimbabweans figure out they can eat breakfast in Matola and then drive at the regulatory 70km an hour to catch the 10:15 Friday flight to Harare, take care of home business and be back in Maputo on Sunday afternoon, what follows will be good for business.
There is no hurry in Swaziland (Eswatini), as the old saying goes. There certainly was little hurry to return to the sky even though was top on the policymaker’s mind for the past 24 years. They started building Sikhuphe airport in 2000 – at the usual right royal pace – to finally open it in 2013.
The distance between 2013 and 2023 is a rather long 10 years. But so what? Yet still, Why Now?
Granted. An effort to restart the airline was made in 2016. It was half-hearted and eventually ran out of steam. Even though the cold shower of post Covid-19 realities frontloaded the airline into a national priority, the ministry of transport has wisely done many things right so far.
Minister of Public Works and Transport Chief Ndlaluhlaza Ndwandwe however does say that the government took advantage of opportunities in the post-pandemic recovery period. Even so, he was restrained not to rush into the airline business soon after the pandemic season. IATA (the UN agency responsible for aviation) says airlines suffered significantly as COVID-19 wiped off 80 per cent of all-time profits in the industry.
The government has also done one more thing right. It cancelled in April 2022 its joint venture With Airlink Swaziland. Airlink and Eswatini Air will now be competing directly with effect from June 1, 2022. “We have jointly and amicably agreed to discontinue Eswatini Airlink’s operations in an orderly manner to avoid any disruption and inconvenience to our customers,” Airlink CEO Roger Foster confirmed.
To its credit, the ministry got one last thing right. It avoided jumping into the sky in June 2022 (even if it had the AOC). Two months earlier, Russia had invaded Ukraine, kicking fuel prices through the roof.
Aviation is a delicate and costly enterprise, especially for new brides. However, the oracles suggest conditions are auspicious for a relaunch at this time. IATA, says there is significant growth in demand for African airlines, reporting a 124 per cent increase in passenger traffic growth in January 2023. IATA also says revenue increased by 67.0 per cent compared to January 2022 and that global traffic is now at 84.2 per cent of January 2019 levels.