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Swiss air traffic controllers under pressure

Air traffic control at Zurich airport: more delays are expected because of a shortage of personnel Keystone

Switzerland is suffering from a serious shortage of air traffic controllers, threatening further delays for passengers.

Swisscontrol, the group responsible for controlling the country’s air space, says it needs to recruit another 40 people to bring its workforce back up to strength. It says the lack of staff may lead to long hold-ups for passengers.

The lack of controllers has been a continuing problem for years but has become critical due to the recent growth in air traffic. During the first six months of the year, the number of movements at Swiss airports increased by 10 per cent.

The problems with staffing have their roots in the early 1990s when the Gulf War led to a fall in air traffic and Swisscontrol relaxed recruitment.

The demands of the job are also such that only one in 10 candidates are accepted to enter Swisscontrol’s training school in Zurich. In addition, one in three students abandon the course or fail the final exams.

To fill the vacant positions, Swisscontrol is looking abroad and has recruited 28 controllers attracted by higher Swiss salaries. A fully trained air traffic controller earns SFr105,000 ($61,500).

Swisscontrol hopes that Switzerland’s bilateral accords with the European Union will also make foreign recruitment easier.

But for the moment, air traffic controllers are finding themselves under more pressure. Union leaders say many staff are at the end of their tether.

“We have no reserves left,” said union official Heinrich Baumgartner, “It only needs two people to be off in Zurich and we have to reduce the airport’s capacity. As for any training needs, they’ve been reduced to the minimum.”

To try to reduce pressure on flight plans, staff have already accepted financial compensation in return for a reduction in their holidays. But Swisscontrol says that will not solve the problem as air traffic continues to grow.

Swisscontrol is keen to point out that safety is not being compromised because of staffing problems. “We don’t play with safety,” said Swisscontrol’s Carlo Bernasconi, “In the worst of cases, we prefer to redirect traffic to other hubs or put up with delays.”

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR