The New York Times The New York Times International July 13, 2002  

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Their Watchword Efficiency, Swiss Recoil at Air Disasters


ZURICH, 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 incidents.


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 for.

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 11 people.

"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 equipment."

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 psychological counseling.

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 accident."

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 the cockpit.

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 the ocean.

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 chief executive.

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 people.

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 Swissair.

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Associated Press
The letters of a Swissair logo lay in a street at the Zurich airport last March after the company's financial collapse.

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