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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 12:35 GMT
Swiss shame over airline disgrace lingers
As the trial of senior Swissair officials continues, following the company's collapse six years ago, Imogen Foulkes examines the Swiss people's past love affair with the airline.

Swissair tailplanes
All the Swiss values of punctuality, efficiency, high quality were supposed to be embodied in the airline
Former Swissair manager

My neighbour Monique has some rather curious furniture. Instead of coffee tables, she has metal trolleys: the kind of thing flight attendants wheel up and down the aisles, dispensing drinks and duty frees.

And that is exactly what they are. Still with the Swiss flag and the name Swissair on the side, these are Monique's souvenirs of a job she loved.

But her career ended on 2 October 2001.

Waking up in their lay-over hotel in Beijing, she and her fellow crew members were presented with a fax from Swissair headquarters, which told them to leave their hotel immediately, say nothing to anyone, wear their uniforms, and return to Zurich. They were also told to pay for their own tickets.

And that is how it ended: the airline with the apparently unassailable reputation, the airline dubbed affectionately at home "the flying bank" was grounded, with hundreds of millions of pounds of debt. Its fleet was impounded at airports all over the world, its crews had to beg or buy seats on rival airlines just to get home.

"I couldn't believe it when we got to Zurich," one pilot told me.

"It was completely silent, no noise from the traffic control tower, no planes in the air. There were just dozens of Swissair planes on the tarmac. It was like taxi-ing through a graveyard of Swiss flags."

'Ambassadors for Switzerland'

The metaphor is telling. Something did die in Switzerland that day: not just an airline but an image the Swiss had of themselves and, more importantly, of their business leaders.

"One thing you have to remember about Swissair," a former personnel manager with the airline told me, "the Swiss were incredibly proud of it. They saw it as Switzerland's international calling card.

Swissair wasn't perfect, it was rotten through and through. That made us think about ourselves and our country and that's good for us
Swiss journalist

"All those Swiss values - punctuality, efficiency, high quality - were supposed to be embodied in that airline."

"You know, the salaries at Swissair were never that good," remembers another former employee, "but if you worked there, you were something special, like an ambassador for Switzerland."

And most special of all were those 19 people who are now in the dock in Zurich. They were the royal family of the powerful Swiss business community.

In Switzerland, being on the board of Nestle or Novartis looks pretty good on your CV, but being on the board of Swissair meant you had really made it.

But these are the people, or so the prosecution claims, who turned Swissair's cash balance - estimated at around 2bn ($3.8bn) at the start of the 1990s - into multi-million pound debts in just 10 years.

Feature film

The interest in the trial has been huge. People want answers from those they think were responsible for the Swissair catastrophe.

Everyone here knows now how appalling the final days of the airline were. Last year, a feature film dramatising the end of Swissair broke box office records. When I went, it had already been playing for seven weeks, but the cinema was full.

There is a scene in which pilots are given bundles of cash to pay for fuel, because no foreign airport trusted Swissair's credit.

This really took place and, that day in the cinema, I could sense the audience squirming in an agony of shame.

To illustrate the actual grounding, the film used real news footage of the chaos around the world as thousands of passengers were stranded.

In the cinema, some people actually wept.

Swissair's 19 former board members are charged with mismanagement, fraud and falsifying documents. But the real crime in many Swiss eyes is betraying Switzerland and that, of course, is not on the charge sheet.

And far from providing answers, nearly all of the accused have chosen to exercise their right to silence, simply pleading not guilty and then sweeping away again in their chauffeur-driven limousines.

Final humiliation

The Eiger mountain in Switzerland
The Swiss fear the airline collapse has damaged their reputation

The Swiss financial community's reputation for good business sense was already seriously damaged by the Swissair disaster. Now some of its members have made things worse by displaying arrogance and an apparent unwillingness to accept responsibility.

The verdict is not due for a while yet. The presiding judges have a charge sheet that is over 100 pages long to consider, but already trial observers are saying that no-one is likely to go to prison over Swissair.

And for those still grieving over the death of the airline, there is not even the consolation of a replacement.

Swiss International Airlines, launched with such high hopes, never made a profit and was sold two years ago to Lufthansa. It was the final humiliation for a country whose relationship with neighbouring Germany has always been somewhat prickly.

But, for some Swiss, the whole sorry story does have one bright spot.

"You know, we thought Swissair was perfect," says a journalist friend. "And we thought Switzerland was perfect; actually we thought we were perfect."

"It turns out that Swissair wasn't perfect at all, it was rotten through and through. That made us think, about ourselves and our country, and that's good for us."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 8 March, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Switzerland
29 Dec 06 |  Country profiles
Trial examines Swissair collapse
16 Jan 07 |  Business

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