Swiss faces a rough ride

Swiss is seeking agreement with former Crossair pilots Keystone Archive

After a relatively smooth start, the new national airline, Swiss, has hit a patch of turbulence.

This content was published on July 30, 2002 - 17:58

Management and former Crossair pilots have failed to settle their differences in an increasingly bitter dispute over pay and benefits.

Technical problems have caused the cancellation of 240 flights over the past month and an aviation expert has accused Swiss of endangering passengers' safety by cutting costs and flying with minimal fuel reserves.

In addition, Swiss announced last week it was suffering from a shortage of cabin crew.

War of words

The union representing pilots from the former regional carrier, Crossair, failed to turn up for negotiations, scheduled for Tuesday, following a war of words with the airline's management.

But, in a move which was welcomed by Swiss, the Swiss Pilots Association on Friday said it was ready to return to the negotiating table.

The two sides are now expected to meet next week to discuss two possible solutions presented by Swiss for ending the stand-off.

The first scenario, favoured by management, would see the pilots' wage bill boosted by SFr16 million ($10.8 million) - a figure that could be covered by the company's existing business plan.

The second option would be to inject SFr26 million, but Swiss warns that such a sum would lead to a restructuring of the company and the possibility of redundancies.

Swiss spokesman Kurt Renggli added that union demands for an extra SFr56 million were simply unacceptable and "put the whole company in jeopardy".

Government concern

The government has registered its concern about the ongoing dispute. In an interview with Wednesday's Le Temps newspaper, Finance Minister Kaspar Villiger insisted the company's business plan had to be adhered to if the company was to survive.

"It would be incomprehensible if a pilots' union preferred to put its short-term interests above the long-term viability of the company," he said.

Agreement challenged

The union says Swiss is not treating former Crossair pilots the same as pilots from the now defunct international carrier, Swissair.

Last month, the union of former Swissair pilots voted in favour of a new Collective Labour Agreement, which will cut their pay and pension benefits.

Although the Crossair pilots have been offered a 16 per cent salary increase on top of the 28 per cent rise in 2001, the union is unhappy about the contract because it still means that Crossair pilots would earn less than their Swissair counterparts.

Task force

In a separate development, the head of Swiss, André Dosé, has put together a task force to investigate the technical problems, which have caused the airline to cancel 240 flights over the past month.

The experts from Saab, Embraer and Avro - three companies which have supplied Swiss and the former Crossair with planes or parts in the past - are expected to announce their findings within a week.

Swiss runs a total of 700 flights per day to destinations all over the world. The recent cancellations represent 0.15 per cent of all its flights.

In a further headache, Swiss aviation expert Sepp Moser has accused the airline of endangering passengers' safety by regularly carrying minimal fuel reserves.

In a newspaper article, Moser said the airline's cost saving measure was the real reason for the forced landing of a plane at a German military airfield earlier this month, which resulted in severe damage to the aircraft.

Moser said the official explanation of adverse weather conditions disguised the fact that the plane did not have enough fuel to land elsewhere.

Lack of cabin crew

Last week, Swiss announced that it was suffering from a lack of cabin crew. The airline attributed the situation to its own staff taking a vacation after the first months of the new carrier's existence.

However industry analysts say redundancies and voluntary retirements during the transition period partly account for the 200-strong shortfall and that the benefits package, which the company is offering, is not enticing new staff.

Swiss said that despite operating with fewer staff during the summer holiday season, flights would still meet service obligations.

Moser said all these issues were damaging the company's reputation. "What passengers want is reliable, safe air transport at a good price and Swiss is not reliable," he told swissinfo. "It is still safe but it is not reliable and it's not offering a good bargain."

Passenger numbers

Swiss flew 5.2 million passengers in the first half of this year at an average seat-occupancy rate of 66.1 per cent.

The company said the figures outperformed expectations and that it hopes to carry ten million passengers in the first year.

The Swiss government and cantons, private industry and the banks have invested about SFr2.2 billion in the new airline.


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