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National legend Swissair grounding: 15 years on

It was a shock to the nation which gave the government and banks pause for thought. “My world collapsed,” recalls one former Swissair flight attendant.

“A national legend brought to the ground”: for the media, the grounding of a once-proud flying icon 15 years ago was a “national meltdown” and “the definitive end to Switzerland's ‘special’ era.” The sudden collapse of the popular Swiss fleet, which flew around the world, deeply affected the country.

“My world collapsed. It was inconceivable that Swissair would no longer fly. I sat speechless in front of my TV on holiday,” Kathrin Kraus, a former Swissair flight attendant recalled.

The shock of that event is still felt deeply in Switzerland. Current media reports are looking back at “black Tuesday”. “On October 2, 2001, Swissair was no more. Because the airline had run out of money, the aircraft had to stay on the ground. It was a shock to the nation, which gave the government and banks pause for thought,” writes the Handelszeizung newspaper.

Lessons learnt

At 7.15am on April 1, 2002, the last scheduled Swissair flight from São Paulo landed on runway 16 at Zurich airport. The Swissair name was consigned to history after 71 years of flying. “The grounding was a sad chapter in Swiss economic history,” Andreas Wittmer, aviation expert at the University of St Gallen, told the Swiss News Agency. “However, we have learnt the lessons. We have learnt that even the most renowned companies can perish.”

Philippe Bruggisser, boss of Swissair from 1997 to January 2001, was to a large part responsible for its grounding. In 1997, he started an aggressive buying spree, which he called the “Hunter” strategy. When Switzerland opted not to join the European Economic Area in 1992, Bruggisser hoped to inflate the isolated Swissair’s critical mass with the acquisition of smaller, but also unprofitable, airlines and by forging partnerships.

The Hunter strategy was an unqualified failure.

Success reborn

Bruggisser now lives in Miami where he works as an airline consultant. Erich Honegger, who once served in Zurich city’s government and as Swissair chairman, runs an exclusive hotel in Austria with his wife.

Swissair was once a company of which the nation could be proud. However, Wittmer refuses to mourn its loss. The reincarnated Swiss airline works as part of the German Lufthansa group. “What is decisive for an export-driven country like Switzerland is that Swiss can choose its destinations independently,” he said.

Fifteen years later, a Swiss airline is flying again - albeit as a Lufthansa subsidiary – and with fat profits. Many parts of the old group survived under its new foreign owner. And the Swiss version of today operates a long-haul flight service not much smaller than that offered by Swissair. 

swissinfo.ch with agencies/Imb

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