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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 March 2006, 09:17 GMT
Airline that crashed and burned
By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News reporter in Geneva

Grounding charts the collapse of Swissair, dubbed the 'flying bank'
A film which dramatises the final days of the airline Swissair is breaking box office records in Switzerland, amid high emotion.

Swissair was grounded, bankrupt, on 2 October 2001.

There was chaos at airports worldwide as thousands of passengers were left stranded, and thousands of Swissair employees ultimately lost their jobs.

The bankruptcy came as an enormous shock to the Swiss because the airline had appeared so successful.

In its 70-year history, it won many awards, recorded good profits, and was known affectionately as 'the flying bank'.

But that doesn't explain why new film Grounding has attracted more than a quarter of a million cinema-goers in just a couple of weeks.

"In the end Swissair wasn't about business anymore," explains Grounding's director Michael Steiner. "It was about our national identity and Swiss values: organisation, precision, being fair."

It was like taxiing through a graveyard of Swiss flags
Christian Frauenfelder, Former Swissair pilot

"Switzerland is a small country, and we saw Swissair as our message of these values to the rest of the world."

Christian Frauenfelder, a former Swissair pilot, recalls the day of the airline's grounding.

"I was coming back from Tokyo, when we got the news," he says. "I was the second last plane into Zurich, and it was unbelievably quiet.

"Zurich is our hub, and normally you would expect lots of noise from air traffic control but there was only silence - you could feel the tragedy.

"When I landed almost the entire Swissair fleet was already there, grounded. It was like taxi-ing through a graveyard of Swiss flags."

The film shows how the Swissair crash left workers in chaos

Four and a half years on, the Swiss are reliving their loss. But as they watch Grounding their tears of grief are likely to turn to tears of frustration.

The film is fast-moving and dramatic, and features a romance between a pilot and a flight attendant.

But where it becomes truly gripping is in its portrayal of Switzerland's bank and business leaders.

Financial management is supposed to be an area where the Swiss excel, but Grounding tells a very different story. The board of directors at Swissair are seen as incompetent and ill-informed.

Humiliating scenes

The banks, when they step in at the last minute, come across as calculating, ruthless, and ultimately unwilling to save the doomed airline.

Between them, management and the banks let Swissair collapse. The resulting scenes are likely to have the nation's cinema-goers squirming in their seats

Swissair crews around the world are turned out of their hotels because they are unable to pay their bills.

On the last day of operations, pilots are given envelopes stuffed with cash to pay for fuel, because no one will accept Swissair's credit.

"I'm not surprised people are crying over this film," says journalist Peter Rothenbuler.

"It's about all the things we thought were good: we thought Swissair was the best, we thought Switzerland was the best, we thought we were the best."

Even Switzerland's financial institutions could not save Swissair

"We aren't, and it isn't. With Swissair, we found out it was rotten from the inside. Now we're wondering if a lot of other things are rotten from the inside."

Perhaps the Swiss might be able to take comfort from their blossoming film industry. Grounding is one of a number of Swiss films attracting critical attention.

But Switzerland will not be able to salvage its national pride by becoming a success in the airline industry again; Swissair's replacement Swiss International Airlines never made a profit, and was sold to Germany's Lufthansa last year.

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