Aviation credits win parliament approval

Swiss transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, said saving Swissair and financing new national carrier was of national importance

Parliament has given the green light for a massive financial package to bail out collapsed Swissair and invest in a new national airline.

This content was published on November 18, 2001 - 10:40

The Senate on Saturday followed the House of Representatives to approve credits of just over SFr2 billion ($1.2 billion), despite opposition from the right-wing Swiss People's Party as well as several small groupings.

The House passed the government's proposal with a majority of 110 to 56 votes, while the Senate endorsed it with 36 to 3 votes.

The funds include bridge loans of SFr1.45 billion to enable Swissair to continue a reduced flight schedule for the next few months, and a SFr600 million investment in a new national carrier due to be operational by next April.

Under a deal reached between the government and industry last month, the federal, cantonal and local authorities will take a 35 per cent stake in the new airline, based on the regional carrier, Crossair. Private industry will contribute SFr1.9 billion, and hold 65 per cent of its shares.

Economic and national interest

Supporters of the credits said Switzerland needed a national airline, which offers intercontinental flights, as well as an important international hub to ensure direct air links with the main destinations across the world.

Speakers from three of the country's four main political parties - Social Democrats, Radicals and Christian Democrats - pointed out that a rejection of the proposed credits would have serious consequences for Switzerland's tourism and export-oriented business industries.

During the debates, many speakers warned of massive job losses and cuts in salaries and pensions for the personnel of Swissair and its flight-related services, if parliament refused to grant the credits.

About 9,000 people, more than half of them in Switzerland, are expected to lose their jobs following the collapse of the national airline.

State interference, democratic farce

During the two-day debate, opponents argued it was not up to the state to bail out a commercial company that had been ruined by bad management. Nor should the state get involved in an over-ambitious and unrealistic project, they said.

Several speakers also demanded that former members of Swissair's board of directors be made accountable for failing to avert the crisis.

More criticism came from speakers who dismissed the debate in parliament as "a farce", because a large part of the credits had already been spent, and effectively forced parliament to rubber stamp legally binding documents.

Risks, but no alternatives

For their part, the transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, as well as the finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, called on parliament to support a task of national importance.

They admitted that said the plan for a new airline included risks, but pointed out that it was the only viable solution to avoid serious economic and social difficulties.

Turbulent year for Swissair

Debt-ridden Swissair ran into serious difficulty at the beginning of the year. Last month it had to file for creditor protection and its entire fleet was grounded for two days. The carrier and its flight-related services, which are based at Zurich airport, had run out of cash.

Many people in Switzerland take pride in the airline as a national symbol and a Swiss trademark abroad. Amid a public outcry over the crisis, the government has taken a leading role in mediating a solution for the country's aviation industry.

The new carrier with a capital of SFr2.7 billion is to absorb up to 52 intercontinental and short-haul aircraft from Swissair, besides the Crossair fleet.

by Urs Geiser

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