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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Airline collapse shatters Swiss image
Anti-bank protesters
Shame at Swissair's fall turned to anger with the banks
By Emma Jane Kirby in Geneva

In Bern train station, the Swissair bureau is open, but it is empty of customers.

On a white sheet hanging in the window a message is scrawled in big red letters: "Swissair says thank you for your solidarity"

Swissair protest
Only a few weeks ago people could not have imagined the scale of the protests
A few weeks ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that 8,000 people would march on the streets of Bern, Zurich, St Gallen and Geneva in protest at the 27,000 job losses caused by the bankruptcy of the national airline.

Swissair was the very symbol of punctuality, efficiency and impeccable service.

But a disastrous expansion policy, coupled with a massive slump in passenger sales following the attacks in the United States, saw the balance sheets showing debts of more than $10m and fuel suppliers refusing to serve the Swissair fleet.

Suddenly banks began to play a different game - a game played in their own interests and not national interests

Le Temps journalist Pierre Hazan
"It was almost too much," says Florence Noel, Economic Editor of the Swiss daily paper the Tribune de Geneve.

"To see the Swissair fleet nailed to the tarmac by debt - that was a big blow to Swiss pride. People felt ashamed, really ashamed. Even third world airlines don't take such a tumble."

Operation Phoenix

For the next three days the newspapers were full of embarrassed rhetoric.

And then, as Swiss television began to screen pictures of Swissair boss Mario Conti on the verge of tears after meetings with bank managers, the tone changed.

"People became angry," says Pierre Hazan, reporter for Le Temps.

Swissair passengers
Swiss were shocked by the sight of passengers left stranded
"Suddenly banks, which Swiss people have always seen as a symbol of Swiss quality, suddenly began to play a different game - a game played in their own interests and not national interests."

The banks, the Swiss Government and private companies are still holding urgent meetings to decide if there is enough money to fund a $2.5 billion salvage deal which would allow Crossair, Swissair┐s subsidiary company, to take over two-thirds of Swissair's flight commitments.

The rescue plan is aptly named Operation Phoenix - but will Switzerland's image ever be able to rise from the ashes, once more splendid?

Bad management

"Swissair, which carried our national flag, ensured the presence of Switzerland in many countries - and now that has disappeared," says Ambassador Johannes Matyassy who heads Presence Switzerland - a PR organisation set up by the federal government to raise Switzerland's profile abroad.

Even the United States, can't find solutions for their problems. If it's not possible for the biggest nations, why should it be for the smaller ones?

Foreign Affairs Minister Joseph Deiss
"It was unacceptable how we dealt with this crisis - to see the Swissair planes on the ground - this was a bad way to deal with the crisis," says Mr Matyassy.

The economic shake-up which has suddenly hit Switzerland may well be followed by a political one.

Switzerland's Foreign Affairs Minister, Joseph Deiss, says it is no secret that the government is pushing for EU membership and wonders if recent events won't help change the minds of the resistant Swiss people.

Swissair was a sign of national pride
"Look at 11 September. Even the United States, the first world-wide power nation can't find solutions by themselves for their problems. If it's not possible for the biggest nations, why should it be for the smaller ones?" said Mr Deiss.

But at the Bern Swissair office there is nostalgia for the old order.

"I marched for Swissair" says a businessman pausing to look at the banner in the window. "There's a big feeling of solidarity here now - but for the old Swissair, not for a new one."

The BBC's Mark Gregory
"Swissair is probably the country's best known brand name"
See also:

15 Oct 01 | Business
Swissair future on knife-edge
11 Oct 01 | Business
Question marks over Swissair rescue
08 Oct 01 | Business
Banks blamed for Swissair failure
09 Oct 01 | Business
Swissair cuts 9,000 jobs
11 Oct 01 | Business
KLM talks up alliances
05 Oct 01 | Business
State warned against buying Swissair
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