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"Junior Swissair" fails to restore public pride

Concerned Swissair staff protested against the attitude of the banks after the grounding

(Keystone)

Five years after the traumatic grounding of Swissair, the jetlagged public find it hard to feel any emotional attachment to the reincarnated national airline Swiss.

But industry insiders believe Swiss could be on the verge of restoring some confidence if it can maintain its current fledgling recovery under the wing of German owners Lufthansa.

Switzerland was left in a virtual state of collective mourning when Swissair was grounded on October 2, 2001. The nation's confidence took a nosedive as the perception of well-organised reliability was finally debunked.

Former Swissair pilot Christian Frauenfelder was flying back from Tokyo when the devastating news reached the cockpit.

"The most vivid memory I have of that day was rolling through the rows of grounded aircraft when we landed in Zurich. It was like a graveyard of Swiss flags and my heart was very heavy," he told swissinfo.

The whole country shared Frauenfelder's sense of shock and loss.

"Swissair was the seen as the symbol of Switzerland that belonged to the people. The collapse of a national airline happened in third world countries – banana republics – not Switzerland," he said.

Five months later a new national carrier was born in the shape of Swiss, a fusion between airline Crossair and the wreckage of Swissair, funded with taxpayers' money.

But, despite still sporting the Swiss flag on the tailfins of its aircraft, Swiss has failed to generate the same feelings of pride and emotional attachment.

Outpouring of emotion

"The day after the grounding, Swissair pilots marched into Zurich to protest at the banks that they blamed for letting the airline go bust," Matthias Mölleney, Swissair personnel chief at the time of the collapse, told swissinfo.

"When people saw them marching they bought all the flowers that were available in the city centre and gave them to the pilots. There would still be some flowers left if the same thing happened to Swiss."

In the five years since the grounding airlines have become hostage to uncontrollable global pressures - such as fuel costs and the challenge of low-cost competitors - lowering their status in the public eye, argues Madeleine Herren-Oesch, a social history professor at Heidelberg University.

"Airlines and airports are no longer metaphors of modernity or a symbol of national success," the former Zurich University academic told swissinfo. "They are now seen as noisy, disturbing and dangerous."

Frauenfelder, who now flies for Swiss and is vice-president of pilot's union Aeropers, believes Swiss has struggled to win hearts because it struggled at first, mounting up debts and job losses in its first few years.

"When Swissair was grounded the emotional connection with the airline was grounded too. That can never be copied," he said.

"The new airline had problems from the beginning and Swiss people cannot associate with that because they want it to be perfect. It is seen almost as a junior version of Swissair."

In Mölleney's view, the public finds it hard to associate with a German owned company. But Frauenfelder points out that Lufthansa's intervention has stimulated a welcome recovery.

A 24-hour strike by former Crossair pilots last week did generate some public reaction.

"Swiss has just started to turn the corner financially and people see this strike as a threat to that success," Frauenfelder said. "If this success continues then perhaps people will again feel pride for their national carrier."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

Swiss International Airlines turned in a loss of SFr178 million ($143 million) in 2005, SFr38 million more than the previous year.
However, the airline made a profit of SFr76 million in the first half of this year (compared with a SFr89 million loss in the corresponding period in 2005).
The company took to the skies on March 31, 2002, with 133 aircraft and 10,000 employees. It now has 6,539 employees and its 67 aircraft fly to 69 destinations in 42 countries.
Two long-haul Airbus A330-200s will be added to the fleet in November with a further two short-haul A321s and an A320 to be added next Spring, creating a total of 250 new jobs.

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In brief

Former national carrier Swissair collapsed in 2001 under a mountain of debt following a disastrous expansion campaign. The last Swissair plane touched down in Zurich from Buenos Aires on April 1, 2002.

With government backing, Swiss was launched on March 31, 2002. The new airline was created from a fusion of Crossair and the remains of Swissair.

In March 2005 the airline announced its takeover by Lufthansa for €279 million (SFr430 million).

On September 26 this year, 78 former Crossair pilots held a 24-hour strike after Swiss failed to meet their demands for improved pay and conditions.

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