Air traffic over Zurich gets radical overhaul

Pilots will have to learn new routes in and out of Zurich airport Keystone

Flight paths in and out of Zurich are set to undergo their biggest ever shake-up on Thursday in response to demands from neighbouring Germany.

This content was published on April 11, 2005 minutes

Skyguide, the Swiss air traffic control agency, has warned that delays could be expected during the first few weeks of operations while it implements the changes.

Aircraft waiting to land at the city’s airport will now have to do so in Swiss airspace, over two areas to the northeast and the west of the airport.

The move comes after the German authorities ruled that planes could no longer be put on hold over Germany.

According to Skyguide spokesman Patrick Herr, moving the flight paths is the biggest modification ever made to Swiss airspace. "It’s a bit like as if the entire motorway network had been shifted," he said.

Air traffic controllers have been preparing for the changes over the past 18 months. Backed up by a team of Norwegian safety specialists, Skyguide has retrained 170 members of its staff and handed out new flight maps to 2,000 airlines and transporters.

Not everybody will be up to speed early Thursday morning when the changes go into effect. Some pilots won’t have the new map and will have to be guided all the way in by controllers, says Herr.


Four experts will be on duty for the next two to six weeks to cover unexpected situations. At the same time, 15 to 20 per cent fewer aircraft will be authorised to land in Zurich to give controllers time to settle in and iron out any glitches.

Passengers can expect some delays. "It will depend on demand," said Herr, who compared the situation to a temporary bottleneck on a motorway.

Skyguide cannot state the length of the delays, nor their number, as the volume of traffic varies from day to day. However, it hopes that it will be back to handling its normal operational workload by mid-May at the latest.

A European ranking released last year placed Zurich top of the list of continental airports most affected by delays.

Meanwhile, the Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCA) says that the new flight paths should not increase noise significantly for the people living underneath.

The minimum ceiling in the holding areas is 2,100 metres. Office spokesman Daniel Göring says this means that noise will be well below its maximum authorised level, although locals will hear aircraft flying overhead.

The new holding patterns are part of Zurich airport’s revised operational guidelines which were partially approved by the FOCA in March.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The reorganised airspace covers 43,000 cubic kilometres.
Skyguide has invested 32,000 man-hours on the project.
Around 2,000 airlines and transporters have received new charts.
170 air traffic controllers have been retrained.
The changes have been prepared in 18 months, instead of the standard three years.

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In brief

In March 2003 parliament rejected an accord limiting the number of flights permitted to fly over southern Germany before landing in Zurich.

Berlin then banned flights over parts of this main approach to Zurich airport between 9 pm and 7 am in April 2003.

The restrictions cut these flights to 80,000 a year, forcing the airport to implement a controversial southern approach.

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