Swissair pilots affected by airline turbulence

Alex Schönenberger says his salary and pension benefits have been cut by 35 per cent swissinfo.ch

As the new airline "swiss" takes to the skies, many pilots are still feeling the effects of the turbulent months that followed the collapse of the national carrier.

This content was published on March 30, 2002 - 10:43

When the new airline formally begins operations on Monday, replacing Switzerland's 70-year-old Swissair, thousands of former employees of the defunct airline group will be watching, including a number of pilots.

Even pilots who found jobs following the Swissair debacle faced financial troubles and uncertainty. Some lost their savings, or were forced to take severe pay cuts. Others became disillusioned about the airline industry.

Financial losses

Alex Schönenberger, 38, a former Senior First Officer for Swissair, obtained a contract with swiss after months of negotiation, but his salary and pension benefits have been cut by 35 per cent.

There may have been trouble in the air for a couple of years at Swissair. "But none of the pilots could have imagined its total demise," says Schönenberger, who has logged more than 5,000 flight hours. "It was a blow we weren't prepared for emotionally."

After the airline was grounded, Swissair provided some of Schönenberger's colleagues with psychological counseling. Although he didn't need it, he still suffered his share of anxiety. It was especially tough spending months at a moribund airline, without knowing whether he'd have a job in April. Working in a team, surrounded by people who were sad, disappointed and anxious, was a real test of his strength.

Schönenberger grew up in Belp, near the Bern airport.

Waiting in the wings

Planes were a familiar sight during his boyhood. He was intrigued by the huge metal birds and also by the expanse of sky in which they flew. Perhaps not coincidentally, he went on to university studies in physics, geography and meteorology.

When he was still a university student, he first made contact with Swissair. He asked the airline if he could finish his degree before starting a career as a pilot. Far from treating the request as an obstacle, Swissair saw it as a point in the candidate's favour.

"That was one of the main differences between Swissair and Crossair," Schönenberger says. "Swissair always looked for people, for temperaments; the education they brought with them was treated as a plus." Crossair, on the other hand, hired previously licensed pilots. It didn't matter where they came from or how long they planned to stay."

In short, joining Swissair was like joining a big family. A potential pilot had to know how to fly, and had to be willing to spend several years on board. "I was proud of my work as a pilot," continues Schönenberger. "I really felt connected to the airline. Now I can't say that I don't, but things have definitely changed."

One of the major changes is financial.

Even before the collapse, Swissair pilots were not earning much more than colleagues at other airlines. According to Christoph Ulrich, head of the Swissair pilots' association Aeropers, their salaries used to be average, and now they're a third lower than those of European pilots. The gap is even wider compared with pilots in the United States.

Throughout the ordeal of the Swissair collapse and the rise of its replacement, he never seriously contemplated leaving Switzerland, but he did consider a career change.

Now, his son has not yet said he wants to become a pilot like his Dad.

And if he follows through? "Well, why not? But I think he'll have time to change his mind."

by Raffaella Rossello

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