The Kingdom of Eswatini will soon revive its national airline after purchasing two aircraft that will be operated by the Royal Eswatini National Airways Corporation (RENAC) – a Category A public enterprise. This will not be the first time that Eswatini has a national airline as it has on previous occasions operated the ‘Lijubantsendzele’ and also the ‘Ludvondvolo’ aircraft. The Times SUNDAY has it in authority that RENAC has concluded a deal with HOP!, which is a subsidiary of Air France, for the purchase of the two aircraft and this transaction has been confirmed by the government company’s Chief Executive Officer, President Dhlamini.
Information from the CAPA – Centre for Aviation is that HOP!, trading as Air France HOP, is a full-service regional airline of Air France, combining Air France Regional, Airlinair and Brit Air. The carrier operates inter-regional routes in France and Europe with a fleet of aircraft seating 48 to 100 passengers each. HOP! operates over 500 daily services to over 130 destinations from Paris Orly and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Air France rebranded HOP! as Air France HOP as a way of consolidating brand strength and increasing clarity and overall consistency of the Air France-KLM service offering. As confirmed by the CEO, the two aircraft are the Embraer ERJ-145 and each has a carrying capacity of 50 passengers. Dhlamini refused to disclose the price that has been spent in purchasing the two aircraft, citing confidentiality protocols.
“The terms of our agreement with the agent that sourced the aircraft for us has a confidentiality clause and I am not at liberty to divulge the terms,” he said.
What is noteworthy is that these aircraft are not brand new as they were previously operated by HOP! However, according to Aero Corner, a brand new Embraer ERJ-145 retails between US$ 19.6 million and US$ 21 million in the USA, which is about E313.6 million to E336 million when calculated according to the latest Lilangeni/Dollar exchange rate.
The price for pre-owned ERJ-145 could not be determined at the time of compiling this report, but the price for a pre-owned ERJ-145ER, according to Aircraft Cost Calculator, is US$7 995 000 (about E127.9 million), depending on numerous factors. The ERJ, as per www.aerospace-technology.com, has different versions: The extended-range ERJ-145ER is the original version of the aircraft which has a range of 2 963km; the long-range ERJ-145LR, introduced in 1998, has a range of 3 037km; and the extra long-range ERJ-145XR, with improved fuel efficiency and a range of 3 704km.
There are three variants of the aircraft – the 50-passenger ERJ-145 launched in 1989; a shorter fuselage 37-passenger ERJ-135 launched in 1997; and the medium-size 44-seat ERJ-140 launched in 1999. It is understood that a team from RENAC was in France for close to a month to conclude the deal and only returned to Eswatini about a fortnight ago.
This has also been confirmed by Dhlamini, who said the purpose of the visit was for the team to physically inspect and audit the aircraft, as well as audit its maintenance and operational documentation, including the conduct of a test flight.
“The period required for this exercise was just over two weeks for the two Embraer ERJ 145, as it included the administration of export protocols and aviation authority permits,” said the CEO. While sources had hinted to this publication that the aircraft had arrived in the country, Dhlamini clarified that they had not, as yet. “They are still undergoing post-delivery maintenance and branding,” he said. The purpose of RENAC reviving the national airline is to provide air travel from Eswatini to other destinations in the SADC region because currently, the only route is to Johannesburg (O.R Tambo International Airport).
“Initial routes to be serviced will be Harare (Zimbabwe), Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg (all South Africa). The carrying capacity of each aircraft is 50 passengers,” Dhlamini said. The CEO, when asked how affordable these routes would be to travellers because the concern at present regarding the route to Johannesburg was that it was expensive, hence people opt to travel by road, he said the prices would be competitive.
Currently, the return airfare from the King Mswati III (KMIII) International Airport to O.R Tambo International Airport in is around E5 000. “Our national airline will be offering competitive prices for all our routes.” Dhlamini said, and further stated: “Our aim is to make flying affordable and a preferred mode of transport. With the imminent opening of the Manzini-Mbadlane-Sikhuphe Highway, travel time to the airport will be greatly reduced, making flying more attractive.”
The time that is focused for the airline to hit the sky to mark the commencement of servicing the routes, according to the CEO, is the second quarter of 2022.
Presently, the Johannesburg route is the monopoly of Eswatini Airlink and there have always been questions as to whether having two operators for this path would be viable; but Dhlamini believes so. “With the number of travellers in and out of the country, by both road and air, there is enough traffic to accommodate two operators,” he said.
Dhlamini continued: “Those passengers from all over the world, who land in Johannesburg and then come to Eswatini by road, will now have an option of connecting on our airline at our four destinations that have international connections and fly straight to Eswatini at affordable rates.” The revival of the national airline to operate regional commercial flights is part of RENAC’s five-year strategy, of which Dhlamini gave a briefing to members of the Parliament portfolio on public works in transport during a workshop held in October at the Royal Villas. The CEO said the plan included partnering with other international airlines, which would connect emaSwati to other international destinations.
He said this was the trend even with other airlines in various countries, which partnered with their international counterparts to connect their customers to other parts of the world. Plans to revive the national airline began being spoken about back in 2013 by then Director of the Eswatini Civil Aviation Authority, Solomon Dube, who said this was so that the KMIII International Airport would be made viable. Then, Dube had envisaged that the airline could start offering service in 2014. News of reviving the national airline had been positively welcomed by the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), which said it was in support of every initiative that is designed to revive economic activism in all the sectors, including that of the aviation industry. Secretary General (SG) Mduduzi Gina said such programmes, however, must be carried out after due diligence had been observed as regarded by the financial returns.
“In most countries, decisions on national airlines are taken for political reasons than economic ones. We believe the revival of this sector can contribute to investment confidence and can be a cost-effective way for investors to do business; an investor can have a breakfast meeting in Cape Town, a lunch meeting in Manzini and dinner meeting in Harare all in one day,” he said. The SG said they were, however, challenging RENAC, as a Public Enterprise, to assure the nation that they carried out a due diligence exercise and determined if the country can:
1. Afford to buy, maintain and manage the operation of two airlines and tell the nation what were the causes of the failures of previous attempts to own an airline;
2. The challenges, if any, of the cooperation that currently exists between them and SA under the Airlink arrangement;
3. If the government and other State-owned enterprises will not collapse the airline by having costly free rides or delayed payments.
Eswatini’s aviation history is a rich one, spanning from the 1970s. As reported by Times Aerospace, RENAC, then known as the Royal Swazi National Airways, started operations in 1978 and through the years this airline operated central, eastern and southern Africa routes using a Fokker F28, A Fokker 100, a Vickers Viscount and Boeing 737-200. Destinations it serviced included Cape Town, Dar es Salem, Gaborone, Harare, Johannesburg, Lusaka, Maseru and Nairobi.
“However, once sanctions on South Africa were lifted in the 1990s, passenger numbers dropped. The Eswatini 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,” Times Aerospace reported in 2018. Government formed a joint-venture partnership with Airlink South Africa and formed Eswatini Airlink which has ably serviced the Johannesburg route over the years.
The country’s aviation history has not been without drama; as reported by this publication on November 17, 2013, Mike Hoare, a fierce Irish guerrilla fighter in the 1980s, published a book in 2012 in which he revealed how he hijacked Eswatini’s (then Swaziland’s) Fokker F28 and flew to the Seychelles Islands to overthrow that country’s former president. That was in 1981.
Hoare, the mercenary, boarded a scheduled Fokker 28 on November 25, 1981 with a group of 43 mercenaries led by him at Matsapha International Airport to Mahe in the Seychelles in an attempt to overthrow the Seychelles’ then President France-Albert Rene. In Hoare’s book, titled, ‘The Seychelles Affair’, he called that the journey to Seychelles to assassinate President Rene began in the Kingdom of Swaziland – at Matsapha International Airport. In 1981, Seychelles exiles in South Africa, acting on behalf of ex-President James Mancham, had begun discussions with officials concerning a coup attempt to be launched in Seychelles in 1978.
The operation was entrusted to the then 58-year-old Hoare, who was living in South Africa as a civilian. Among the 53 people selected to carry out the coup were some members of the South African Special Forces (Recces), several former Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) soldiers and ex-Congo mercenaries. Hoare and 43 mercenaries were disguised as tourists: Rugby players and members of a beer-drinking group called the Ancient Order of Froth-blowers. They arrived in a Royal Swazi jet, landing at Mahé airport, carrying their own weapons. It is said that nine members had already arrived on the island as an advance guard.
On the evening of Wednesday, November 25, the coup was detected when a Customs officer spotted an AK-47 in the luggage of one of Mike Hoare’s mercenaries.
The mercenaries then fought a brief gun-battle at the airport and most of the mercenaries escaped aboard an Air India jet (Air India Boeing aircraft Flight 224), which happened to be on the runway, which they hijacked. One mercenary died during the skirmish. This was 24-year-old Johan Fritz of Westcliff from South Africa; the son of a General Mining executive who grew up on ‘Millionaire’s Row’.
Five soldiers, a female accomplice and also Martin Dolinchek (alias Anton Lubic) were left behind. Hoare had been promised US$1 million (about E16 million in today’s exchange rate) to dethrone the Seychelles president. He revealed that Eswatini customs and the police believed that they were rugby players destined for Seychelles for an international tournament; totally unaware that AK-47s were hidden in their luggage. They thought the bulging bags contained sportswear.
They were exposed as they passed through customs when an alert Seychelles official discovered a dismantled AK-47 in one of the mercenaries’ luggage.
A shootout at the Seychelles airport ensued. Bullets were fired at Swaziland’s airline and it was damaged in the ensuing firefight between Seychelles officials and the mercenaries at Seychelles International Airport. After this incident, the airline ceased flights to the Seychelles. This is not the only dramatic incident involving an Eswatini Airline: On June 5, 1993, the Associated Press reported that the same plane and same pilot were hijacked by a drunk gunman who wanted ‘out of Mozambique and Africa’. The Fokker F-28 aircraft was en route from Maputo, Mozambique, to Eswatini, carrying two passengers and four crew members, when the Portuguese-speaking man, shortly after takeoff, went to the cockpit with an AK-47 assault rifle and demanded to go to Australia.
When told that was beyond the plane’s range, he said he wanted to go to Lesotho. However, that airport was closed so the plane, low on fuel, was diverted to Johannesburg. The hijacker then released the two flight attendants in exchange for more fuel. The plane took off, but soon returned to the Johannesburg airport when officials convinced the gunman the plane still needed more fuel. About three hours after the aircraft first landed in Johannesburg, police stormed the plane and a gun battle erupted and the man was shot in the head.
The pilot and one of the passengers on the twin-engine Fokker plane were also hit in the gun battle Sunday night. The then S.A Foreign Minister Pik Botha told a news conference that all three were reported in stable condition.