Swissair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A major world airline and the national flag carrier of Switzerland.

Corporate Information

Swissair was formed on March 26, 1931, in the merger of Basler Luftverkehr (Balair, founded in 1925) and Ad Astra Aero (founded in 1919). Swissair serves a network of routes covering Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Ownership is shared by Swiss national and cantonal governments and private investors. Its headquarters are in Zürich, Switzerland. In 1981, the holding company Swissair Participation S.A. was created to run its nonairline subsidiaries, including hotel, restaurant, airline catering, real estate, travel agency, and freight operations.

The holding company evolved into a genuine holding structure with a new corporate name, the SAirGroup. The new structure comprises a small holding company, Swissair Group, responsible for overall group concerns (finances, corporate development, personnel policy, and communications) and four corporate divisions: SAirLines (all purely airline activities, including Swissair and Crossair); SAirServices, with its subsidiaries Swissport (ground handling), SR Technics (engineering and maintenance), and Avireal (facility management); SAirLogistics, for all cargo and logistics interests, including Swisscargo (air cargo capacity marketing), Cargologic (cargo handling and distribution), and Jetlogistics (airline catering logistics support); and SAirRelations, formerly Swissair Associated Companies and home to Swissôtel (hotel management), Gate Gourmet (airline catering), Rail Gourmet (train catering), Restorama (institutional catering), and Nuance International (travel retail).

Route Structure

In 1931, Swissair inherited from its predecessors routes within Switzerland and from Switzerland to the German Rhineland cities and Lyon, France. In 1932, it adopted the Lockheed Orion monoplane, giving it the fastest express service between Zürich, Munich, and Vienna. Suspending scheduled services during World War II, the company resumed regular flights in 1946 and by 1949 had begun transatlantic service between Switzerland and New York City. In the 1950’s, routes were extended to South America and the Far East, reaching Tokyo in 1961. Since 1961, Swissair has cultivated routes and frequencies in all continents except Australia and with its alliance partners offers one of the most comprehensive airline networks in Africa.

Alliances and Partnerships

Swissair has a long history of participation in international airline groups. Swissair and SAS, the Scandinavian airline, initiated the cooperation in an agreement signed in 1958 in which they shared aircraft procurement and maintenance. The Dutch airline KLM joined in 1969, followed by the French independent airline UTA in 1970. Together the four members were called the KSSU Consortium (for the initials of each airline’s name). Swissair also aligned itself with Delta Air Lines from the United States and Singapore Airlines in 1989 to form a global alliance.

Swissair became a leading member of the Qualiflyer Group, an alliance of several European carriers founded in March, 1998. The Qualiflyer Group encompassed Sabena, TAP Air Portugal, Turkish Airlines, AOM, Crossair, Air Littoral, Air Europe, LOT Polish Airlines, Volare Airlines, and PGA Portugalia Airlines, serving more than 200 destinations in Europe and more than 330 worldwide. Under the Qualiflyer Group umbrella brand, the member airlines tried to expand their respective networks and jointly market innovative products and services while retaining and cultivating their individual identities and brands.

Swissair also developed a broad partnership with American Airlines that included numerous code-share flights over the North Atlantic and made most of American’s domestic U.S. network a part of the Swissair world. Swissair also participated through its subsidiary Crossair in the European Leisure Group, which was created in 1998. It consisted of LTU, Sobelair, Balair/CTA, Crossair, Air Europe, and Volare. The aim of this group of largely leisure-oriented European carriers was to exploit the considerable growth potential in the vacation travel field and assume a leading position in the European market.

Another corporate milestone for the airline was the founding of the Swissair Sabena Airline Management Partnership, or AMP, on January 1, 2000. With the aim of managing two brands and two hubs with a single team, Swissair and Sabena’s commercial units (marketing and product, sales, information technology, network, finance, human resources) were merged and a new alliance was born. The AMP became a London-based legal partnership with branches in Zürich, Brussels, and in various outstations around the world. In 2000, the AMP had 4,000 employees: 800 in Brussels, 1,000 in Zürich and 2,200 located in the outstations. The main goal of this coalition was to realize revenue potential by capturing commercial synergies, as well as to improve market potential by increasing connectivity and market penetration. This new partnership model was intended to allow for future growth and additional partners, enabling each partner to choose its own degree of integration. The Swissair Sabena AMP network reached 170 different destinations (without code-shares) and had more than 170 aircraft. The Swissair Group originally took a stake of 49.5 percent in Sabena Belgian Airlines and planned to increase it to as high as 85 percent.

Bankruptcy and Reorganization

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes in the United States, crashing three of them into prominent buildings and killing thousands. The airline industry was plunged into chaos worldwide. Swissair, which had been pursuing an expansion program, saw its financial health deteriorate dramatically as it incurred massive losses. The airline grounded its entire fleet for two days when it could not pay its fuel and landing bills. In early October, Swissair was forced to file for bankruptcy protection. A few weeks later, the Swiss government approved a rescue package to provide the company with $1.2 billion, while the private sector promised to invest another $1 billion.

Under the scheduled reorganization, the new company would be headed by former Swissair subsidiary Crossair; Switzerland’s biggest banks, Credit Suisse and UBS, had provided $940 million to buy Swissair’s 70 percent share of Crossair in early October. The Swiss government would hold 20 pecent in the restructured airline, with 18 percent held by Swiss local governments and the remaining 62 percent held by banks and industry. The Swissair group expected to cut between 9,000 and 27,000 jobs when Crossair took over in March, 2002. In November, 2001, the AMP partnership was threatened when Sabena declared bankruptcy.

Safety

Swissair historically has had a good safety record. Its only recent accident occurred on the night of September 2, 1998, when Swissair flight SR111, a McDonnell Douglas (Boeing) MD-11 was lost off the coast of Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia. The aircraft was en route from New York to Geneva when it went down carrying 215 passengers and 14 crew members. There were no survivors. The cause of the accident was still under investigation by the Canadian authorities more than two years after it took place. The crew had reported an electrical fire in the cockpit before the aircraft was lost and apparently it was not able to divert in time to a suitable airport for an emergency landing.

Bibliography
  • Groenewege, Adrianus D. The Compendium of International Civil Aviation. 2d ed. Geneva, Switzerland: International Air Transport Association, 1999. A comprehensive directory of the major players in international civil aviation, with insightful and detailed articles.
  • Weimer, Kent J., ed. Aviation Week and Space Technology: World Aviation Directory. New York: McGraw Hill, 2000. An excellent introductory guide on all global companies involved in the aviation business. The information is very basic but very essential as a first introduction to each company.

Accident investigation

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