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Bilateral Accords set to liberalise Swiss air travel

If the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the European Union are approved on Sunday, they will be universally welcomed by the Swiss civil aviation sector.

The agreements will give Swiss airlines access to the EU's deregulated aviation market and allow them to establish new routes.

"It will completely open the skies," says Pierre Jobin, director-general of Geneva International Airport. "Any Swiss airline will have the opportunity to fly to any European city, as often as it likes, with any capacity and at any price."

These rights are reciprocal, and the airlines of EU member states will enjoy similar access to Swiss airspace.

Most small Swiss airlines are savouring the prospect of operating new routes, particularly the ones that have until now been the sole preserve of Swissair. In 1998, the Swiss parliament gave the national carrier the exclusive right to certain routes until 2008. No other company was permitted to fly a route that Swissair already operated.

As far as Geneva is concerned, Easy Jet was prevented from running a scheduled service from there to Barcelona, because Swissair already operated such a service. Instead Easy Jet was forced to operate a charter service on that route.

"If the bilaterals are approved, Swissair's monopoly will end on European routes," Pierre Jobin told Swissinfo. "Other Swiss carriers - Crossair, Air Engiadina, and Easy Jet Switzerland - will be able to operate new scheduled routes from Geneva to any destination in the EU."

It is expected that a proliferation of new routes will mean an increase in direct flights to smaller hubs, like Geneva, as passengers seek to avoid the big airports.

Not surprisingly, Easy Jet Switzerland is campaigning actively for a yes vote. It has even painted an entire Geneva tram in its orange colours to appeal to people to approve the accords.

"If the bilaterals are rejected, it will limit our development out of Geneva," said Philippe Vignon, Easy Jet's marketing manager for Switzerland. "It would mean we would not add to the four aircraft that we have based here."

"We want to develop our Geneva base as quickly as possible. We would like to have the same destinations - Madrid, Athens etc - as we have from our other hubs, Luton and Liverpool," he told Swissinfo.

Easy Jet carried 450,000 passengers out of Cointrin in 1999, and expects to carry a million this year, many people who would not otherwise have flown. If the accords are approved, that number, in theory, is limitless.

The increased competition is certain to drive down prices, with flights to Athens and Lisbon costing as little as 100 francs. All this means that even more passengers will pass through Cointrin airport. Geneva handled 7.5 million passengers in 1999, giving it one of the highest passenger-to-catchment area ratios in the world.

One would be forgiven for thinking that, given the end to its exclusive right to operate certain routes, Swissair would be against the bilaterals. But it too has much to gain. The accords will allow Swiss airlines to acquire a majority stake in any EU airline, without that firm losing its status as an EU carrier.

This means the long-cherished desire of Swissair's parent company, the SAir Group, to buy up firms like Belgium's Sabena will become a reality. It already has a 49 per cent stake in the Belgian carrier. Some analysts have speculated that, if the accords are rejected, Swissair may even consider leaving Switzerland.

by Roy Probert


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