URICH, July 12 — Switzerland, a country
long believed to work with the precision of one of its
renowned watches, is wondering whatever happened to the image
of flawless efficiency it once enjoyed.
The glitches and breakdowns in Switzerland's air traffic
control system that contributed to the recent midair collision
in which 71 people died have compounded a sense of national
shame and embarrassment linked to several recent
The collision of a Russian passenger jet and a cargo plane
is only the latest in a string of aviation-related calamities,
ranging from two fatal crashes in Zurich in the last two years
to the 1998 loss of a Swissair plane off the coast of Nova
Scotia. Then there was the collapse last year of Swissair, the
national carrier whose gleaming jets with their red-and-white
crosses once symbolized the sense of security once associated
with everything Swiss.
"We are deeply ashamed," said Dieter Neupert, an aviation
lawyer and a colonel in the Swiss Air Force who flies
helicopters. "I've been in Swiss aviation for 30 years, and I
can only say it's a real mess."
The latest accident is perhaps the hardest for people here
to swallow. The notion of a controller taking a coffee break
while his colleague struggled with five planes and technicians
switched off a collision alarm system without a backup amounts
to an ignominious negation of all that Switzerland once stood
Today, the Swiss president suffered the humiliation of
having to cancel plans to attend a ceremony for the Russian
victims of the air crash after Russian authorities said they
could not guarantee his safety.
Outrage is not a common trait in the Swiss character, and
even after the damning evidence drawn from the flight-data
recorders of the planes, people here are loath to rush to
judgment. But in the local papers and at the outdoor cafes
that line the Bahnhofstrasse, they speak openly about the
dismal record of Swiss aviation — a decline that seems to
mirror other blots on Switzerland's reputation, like a
catastrophic fire in the Gothard tunnel last fall that killed
"Foreigners think Switzerland is a place that runs like
clockwork, but we know it hasn't been that way for at least 10
years," said René Sutter, 49, who rents pedal boats on
Zurich's lake. "The culture has changed."
Aviation experts said it was difficult to draw any link
between Switzerland's multiple mishaps. The causes range from
apparent pilot error, in the crashes of two planes operated by
the regional carrier, Crossair, to inept management, in the
case of Swissair's bankruptcy.
Yet if there is a common thread, experts here say, it is in
Swiss industry's decade-long scramble to cut costs, increase
profits, and otherwise prepare for the crosswinds of global
competition. Among the changes was the country's decision to
spin off its air traffic control authority as a commercial
corporation, called Skyguide, in which the government had
maintained a close to 100 percent stake. The move was not
unique: Many European countries have privatized their air
traffic control authorities. But in a country with a long
history of sheltered markets and cosseted companies, the moves
had volatile consequences.
Like other air traffic control providers, Skyguide has
reduced its staff and cut costs. That has put growing pressure
on the Swiss controllers, who oversee some of the most crowded
airspace in Europe, including a slice of southern Germany,
where the two planes flew into each other at 36,000 feet.
"Commercialization is good for airlines; it's not good for air
traffic controllers," said Marc Baumgartner, a controller in
Geneva who is the president of the International Federation of
Air Traffic Controllers.
"There is a shortage of staff," he said. "The management
decided to stop training, to stop investing in new
Officials at Skyguide did not return several telephone
calls. But a spokesman for the Federal Office of Civil
Aviation, which oversees the company, said that commercial
pressures had not eroded its safety standards. "Privatization
of air traffic control does not raise safety questions," said
the spokesman, Daniel Göring. "Safety comes first, whether it
is a government agency or a private company."
Mr. Göring said the Swiss government had removed the
controller who issued the fatal instructions. The man, a
Danish citizen whose name has not been released, is undergoing
The Swiss government also ordered Skyguide not to allow
controllers to work alone, even during night shifts. It said
the company would not be permitted to switch off equipment
like ground radar detectors or telephone lines for maintenance
unless a backup was in place.
Skyguide was so shaken by the crash that it reduced the
number of flights allowed to enter the country's airspace by
20 percent. It eased that reduction to 10 percent this
evening, and will consider returning to a normal pattern on
Monday. "They have to find out how much psychological pressure
their controllers can take," Mr. Göring said. "It's not so
easy for a company to be accused of being responsible for an
Admission of responsibility had not been easy for the
country as a whole. Initial statements suggesting the Russian
pilot might be responsible have been withdrawn. "The
confrontation with the terrible notion of being part of the
cause of the death of 71 people led us into helpless initial
reactions, to confused and confusing information, to lapses,"
said the transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, in a visit
today to a memorial service in Germany.
Switzerland can ill afford a loss of confidence. Landlocked
and hemmed in by the Alps, it relies more than almost any
European country on its aviation network. Switzerland's
reputation for safety and efficiency had enabled it to build a
far grander national airline than is common in a country of
just 7.3 million people. Travelers can fly to 40 long-haul
destinations from Zurich airport, compared with fewer than 10
destinations from Vienna.
In its heyday, Swissair was a byword
for impeccable service. But for casual observers, the first
chink in the armor came in September 1998, when a Swissair
MD-11 flying from New York to Geneva plunged into the sea off
Nova Scotia, killing 229 people. Investigators believe the
crash was caused by a thumbnail-size fire in the ceiling above
While Swissair's maintenance was not
questioned, some experts said the pilots could have made an
emergency landing in Halifax had they not stuck to a sequence
of procedures, which included dumping the plane's fuel into
Swissair's financial collapse was only slightly less
sudden. The airline expanded through the 1990's by acquiring
stakes in Sabena, the unprofitable Belgian airline, LOT Polish
Airlines, and South African Airways. When it became clear in
2001 that these investments were sinkholes, Swissair fired its
When air travel plummeted after Sept. 11, Swissair ran out
of money to buy fuel for its planes. It grounded its fleet a
month later. In a humiliating spectacle, Swissair flew its
planes back to Zurich to avoid having them seized by foreign
countries who claimed to be owed money.
"They main reason for the collapse is that they were
arrogant," said Sepp Moser, a Swiss journalist who has written
extensively about Swissair. "You cannot be a global player in
aviation when you are Switzerland."
The remnants of Swissair have been absorbed by Crossair, an
upstart Swiss carrier that has become Europe's No. 1 regional
airline. But just as Switzerland was navigating that messy
transition, Crossair was stunned when one of its planes flew
into a snowy forest near Zurich's airport last November.
Twenty-four people were killed in the crash. A previous
Crossair crash in January 2000, also in Zurich, killed 10
Investigations into the accidents are still under way, but
the evidence in both cases points to pilot error. Since then,
Crossair has been unable to shake questions about safety. It
grew into one of Europe's largest airlines in barely a decade
by keeping its costs well below those of competitors.
Crossair is trying to evoke the image of the old Swissair.
It has called the new national airline "Swiss," and has put a
red-and-white cross on the tails of its planes. But some
experts question whether a commuter carrier will be able to
manage the employees of Swissair. They note that when the
Swiss government's financing runs out at the end of this year,
the new "Swiss" may be no more able to compete than the old