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SWISS International Airlines

Thumbs up and fingers crossed

The laws of physics have been contradicted. Airplanes can actually fly belly-up. The new Swissair/Crossair is once again aloft, thanks to a cunning plan developed by several Swiss banks. At the end of the process, a new Swiss flag carrier will emerge with a new name.

The puzzled traveller is left with a range of questions, such as:

  • Does Swissair still offer the same renowned high quality of service?
  • Is Crossair still the best regional airline in Europe?
  • Will they both manage to survive?
  • How will they merge to form a new airline?
  • Are they cutting down on safety to save money?
  • Will my tickets remain valid?
  • Will my miles be worth anything in the future?

I will attempt to answer these questions in this article from my own experiences with Swissair and Crossair, having flown them quite often recently, and having followed closely their economic development.

Adding to my approximately twenty previous flights with them, I have travelled on Swissair and Crossair on ten flights in December and January 2001/2002. And because a lot has changed in the services they provide since the September turmoil, I will base my verdict solely on these recent flights. These were all short- and medium range European flights between Switzerland, Germany and Romania, plus two domestic flights in Switzerland. All these flights were in Economy Class.

The state of affairs at Swissair: downturn and resurrection

The old Swissair group may go down in the case books for History of Economics as one of the greatest failures in corporate strategy, and certainly as the greatest airline cock-up since the demise of Pan Am. For over five years, Swissair’s hunter strategy was simply to buy any available European air travel company, on the air or on the ground, no matter the cost. And the cost was high. Already in trouble throughout the first half of 2001, Swissair was unfit to accommodate the losses that came with the global downturn in air travel after 11 September.

Between 1995 and 2001, the former Swissair Holding Company SAir Group acquired stakes in a dozen of airlines, including Sabena (Belgium), LOT (Poland), LTU (Germany), AOM / Air Liberté (France), Volare (Italy) and South African Airways, thereby piling up huge financial liabilities and interest cost.

None of these airlines ever generated substantial profits. In fact Sabena, LTU, AOM and Air Liberté were more than once close to biting the dust, and Sabena finally filed for bankruptcy on 3 October 2001. By the end of the year 2000, the small Swiss regional airline Crossair was the only profitable airline in the whole group.

After negotiations with banks and the Swiss government failed, Swissair sought a moratorium for debt repayment at the courts on 1 October, and ceased all flight operations on 2 October, only to resume them the next day with a reduced schedule. But most travel agencies no longer issued tickets for Swissair, and other airlines refused to accept them. Swissair appeared to be bust.

In the months since October 2001, we have become witnesses to a brilliant act of financial engineering and business planning. Under the new structure, the former subsidiary Crossair has been recapitalised by two major Swiss banks to take over parts of Swissair’s operations without assuming its liabilities.

According to the “Phoenix Plus 26/26” business plan for 2002-2004, a new Swiss flag carrier will be formed this year, the name of which is still undecided. It will operate 26 short range and 26 long range planes from Swissair’s previous fleet, along with the complete previous Crossair fleet of 77 regional aircraft.

What does it all mean to you?

  1. You can book Swissair and Crossair tickets again. Travel agents are issuing them again and, should a flight get cancelled, other airlines will accept your ticket as usual.
  2. You can trust in their continuing operations, even if you book a ticket for a date much later in the year. Current load factors and revenues exceed the numbers stated in the business plan, making the banks’ and the government’s effort to save the Swiss airline a promising and trustworthy venture.
  3. You will like them. In a huge effort to regain your business, Swissair and Crossair will do almost everything to keep you happy whilst on board their planes. In five years of flying with them frequently, I have never seen their staff acting as friendly as now.
  4. You can save a lot of money. Flying with a quality airline in Europe has never been so cheap (leaving aside the huge increases in airport taxes and security fees). Bargain offers from Crossair and Swissair are all over the place.
  5. Your “Qualiflyer” Miles retain and gain in value. Swissair has never been so generous in throwing away bonus miles. With a bit of cleverness at exploiting their mileage offers, you can now secure your free holiday flights for the next ten years. And the “Qualiflyer Group” alliance appears to be secured, although with fewer airlines than before.
  6. But you should expect some flight disruptions. Flight delays, cancellations and baggage delays are currently the rule, not the exception. And the ground handling operator, Swissport, appears to be in a real mess.

The new fleet & network: a fine balance

Following the consolidation of Swissair and Crossair, the two airlines now operate with a reduced fleet of 52 Swissair planes and 77 Crossair aircraft. Together they operate one of the youngest and most modern fleets in Europe.

Swissair long haul:
11 Boeing/McDonnell-Douglas MD-11
15 Airbus A330-200

Swissair short & medium haul:
26 Airbus A319/A320/A321

Crossair short haul:
8 Boeing/McDonnell-Douglas MD-82/83
19 BAe/AVRO

Regional Jets 85/100
18 Embraer Regional Jets 145
32 Saab 2000/340 Turboprops

A cut in Crossair’s charter flight operations has allowed them to take over most of the European routes that Swissair no longer serves. Thus the decrease in continental destinations and flight frequencies is rather marginal. Swiss domestic and intercontinental flights have suffered instead, particularly with a large reduction of flights to North and South America, the Middle East and Central Asia.

For the Economy Class passenger, the joint Swissair/Crossair fleet comes with the largest seat pitch available worldwide. An amazing 35 inches are more than some airlines offer in the Business Class cabins on board their short-haul aircraft. I have always felt comfortable on board Swissair – even on a middle seat you can still stretch out. As you may or may not expect, all seats are made of real leather, soft and shiny.

On top of that, Crossair’s fleet in particular is made up of aircraft with rather large cabin width, allowing them to install wider seats without losing capacity. There is also no discomfort from the usual noise and vibrations in Crossair’s turboprop aircraft, for the Saab 2000s are fitted with an “active noise reduction system” which works amazingly well. Yet Crossair plans to replace all turboprops with Embraer 145 Jets by 2006, and the AVRO Jets with the brand new Embraer 170 as of 2004.

On the whole, full points for Swissair and Crossair on comfort, interior and fleet.

Meals & in-flight service: a smile in the skies

“A smile in the skies” is actually the slogan of competitor Austrian Airlines. But it describes best my experiences on board recent Crossair and Swissair flights. Whilst Crossair staff have always been among the friendliest in the air worldwide, Swissair has now followed suit.

With Crossair, the positive impression continues with Economy Class meals. That’s if you don’t travel in the morning, for the “breakfast” consists of a plain dry croissant without topping. But for lunch and dinner your receive the best rolls and sandwiches in the air, with such choices as “Bündner Fleisch” (a delicate Swiss kind of smoked ham), French herbed cottage cheese, different kinds of Swiss cheese, plus fish. Still only rolls, but considering that most Crossair flights don’t last longer than an hour, that’s fine with me. Throughout the flight, you get served numerous kinds of sweets, Swiss chocolate, candies and fruits. Coffee and cold drinks are served in china and glass respectively, none of the typical Economy Class plastic wrappings here. The frequency of servings throughout the flight reminds me of the Business Class Service of other airlines.

On board Swissair, little has changed on the medium-haul flights, although there are no longer two options of warm dishes. The main course is quite edible, always cooked to perfection and appealing in taste. Worth a mention are the salads as a starter, these are by far the best and largest Economy Class salads I have come across. As on board Crossair, once again loads of Swiss chocolate and sweets throughout the flight.

On both Swissair and Crossair, no meals are served on Swiss domestic flights in Economy Class. But considering that none of these flights last longer than 45 minutes, this can be forgiven.

Swissair has opted for the most awkward choice of in-flight entertainment on its short and medium haul fleet: video without audio. And since (understandably) money is being saved on this service, I have seen the same two programmes on all flights: one series of sketches, Just for the laughs, and one cartoon, Pink Panther. Money is also saved where it’s needed least: November’s Swissair Gazette, the in-flight magazine, can still be found in the seat pockets in January.

Altogether, this makes for a quite positive impression of Swissair’s and Crossair’s meals and on board service in Economy Class.

Ground handling, flight delays & baggage losses: old pains at new heights

Whereas Swissair and Crossair have always played in the premier league of service in the air, I have never liked their ground service operations. The staff of the group company Swissport, in an attempt to make all clichés about Swiss arrogance come true, typically do it all by the book. And if your particular case isn’t mentioned in the book, then it’s not meant to exist. Thank you and goodbye. On one occasion in the past, when I complained about ground service delays making me miss my onward flight, I received the answer that I should fly Lufthansa if I didn’t like their service. I happily followed this advice for the next two years. But I was prepared to approach them without prejudice when I started flying Swissair & Crossair again this winter.

With regard to delays, baggage and ground service, the result of these ten most recent flights is anything but positive:

  • · 5 of the 10 flights were delayed more than 15 minutes, including one delay of one hour and another one of 45 minutes. Whilst waiting in Zürich, I also heard far more delay announcements than should be normal.
  • · Swissair and Crossair together lost my luggage twice. Considering that these ten flight segments were flown on five connections, that makes for a quota of 40 percent. Whilst one baggage loss was caused by a delay, and thus a short connection, the other one happened after a two-hour stopover in Zürich, enough time to process baggage in transit.
  • · On all occasions, I was denied an overnight body care set, let alone a voucher or compensation offer to buy some clothes. Swissair’s ground agent in Bucharest, Globe Ground Romania, said they had no information about compensation plans, and I should contact Swissair in Zürich directly. In Düsseldorf I was told (in a rather harsh tone) that I was not entitled to anything because this was my place of residence and not an outbound destination. I am still in the process of negotiating both cases with Swissport headquarters.
  • · However, in both cases Swissair/Crossair flew in the lost baggage with the next plane and delivered it promptly to my doorstep.
  • · On several occasions – booking tickets, checking-in, boarding, or claiming lost luggage – I have observed ground staff complaining in front of passengers about bad working conditions, delays and the high number of passengers’ complaints. I regard this practice as highly unprofessional.

Thus the old picture of Swissair & Crossair remains: great in the air, but mediocre on the ground.

Flight safety: “Zürich, we have a problem…”

Swissair and Crossair were once seen as two of the safest airlines worldwide. But a series of fatal crashes in the last four years has left a big mark on the airlines’ safety record:

  • 2 September 1998, flight SR 111: a Swissair MD-11 en route from New York to Geneva crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, killing all 215 passengers and 14 crew members. The cause of the accident is still under investigation, but believed to be connected to a short-circuit in the aircraft’s in-flight entertainment system.
  • 10 January 2000, flight LX 498: a Crossair Saab 340 crashed shortly after take-off from Zürich to Dresden, all seven passengers and three crew died in the accident. The cause of the accident remains unknown.
  • 14 November 2001, flight LX 3597: a Crossair AVRO RJ100 from Berlin crashed from low altitude during its landing approach towards Zürich. Of the 33 people onboard, only twelve passengers and two crew survived the crash. The accident is still under investigation, although the lack of an Instrument Landing System (ILS) on Zürich’s Runway 28 may have contributed to the situation.

There has been widespread speculation about possibly lax safety procedures, particularly at Crossair. But in June 2000, an independent expert commission, albeit identifying some weaknesses in Crossair’s flight planning and organisational structure, certified a high level of aircraft maintenance and flight safety. If we are to believe the official announcements of Swissair and Crossair, the two airlines are doing their utmost to prevent further accidents, which includes applying the industry’s strictest safety measures. They also keep saying that the airlines’ cost saving measures will in no way affect flight safety operations.

A remaining concern, at least for this year, will be a safety problem at Zürich Airport. In 2001 the Swiss and German governments negotiated new landing paths for late night hours, which require flights landing after 9pm to descend towards Runway 28. This runway has no ILS, and will only get one in 2003. At times of bad weather and visibility, a manual approach can bear a potential risk.

Thus for the time being, until the accidents are fully investigated and the ILS installed, a little doubt over the safety of Swissair and Crossair remains.

Prices & Qualiflyer promotions: does anybody still pay for their flights?

Having said all this, you may ask why I have chosen the new Swissair/Crossair as my preferred airline, for the time being. The answer is because of both price and a warm shower of extra miles into my “Qualiflyer” account.

Most European destinations are currently offered from almost anywhere else in Europe at below £200, all included, for a return flight in Economy Class with a weekend stay. Considering that ticket prices have increased immensely throughout the industry due to new security fees and higher airport taxes since 11 September, these prices are now among the lowest offered by any European quality carrier.

Another great incentive are the current mileage programme promotions, which offer double and triple miles, plus significantly reduced award tickets, almost throughout the entire network. It has never been so easy to secure your free flights with the “Qualiflyer” programme. And because the restructuring efforts appear to be successful, Swissair & Crossair, and most of the other Qualiflyer airlines, will manage to survive. For the time being, your miles are safe, and growing.

On top of that, Swissair and Crossair keep sending out special mileage offers to selected longstanding customers. They are offering literally hundreds of thousands of extra miles, depending on the number of flights and class of service. My four paid Economy flights in December (i.e. one round trip Düsseldorf – Zürich – Bucharest) gained me an enormous 26,000 miles – that’s more than one free round trip flight in Business Class in Europe. Even better, their latest offer will gain me 240,000 !!! extra miles for the mere investment of £600 in paid tickets. If they stay in business, I won’t have to pay for my private flights for the next five years.

Thumbs up and fingers crossed for the new Swissair and Crossair, plus a slightly mileage-biased 7 out of 10 points in the Hajo’s World airline rankings.

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