Germany, France and Italy: Never before has Switzerland had to cancel so many flights due to strikes

Strikes have never been as severe as this year. This costs the Swiss tens of millions. How does the airline fight this and what are the consequences for the airline, staff, passengers and the environment.

Oliver Buchhofer calls it “natural madness”. According to the Chief Operations Officer in Switzerland, he and his team are currently facing such heavy demands as they are otherwise only at peak times of the holiday season. Replanning routes, taking care of stranded guests, postponing flights, organizing replacement flights, mobilizing replacement staff – the pressure is too much now. “And the summer months are just ahead of us,” he adds.

Responsibility for some of the additional pressures rests with the Swiss leadership itself. Because compared to the winter months, the supply has increased by another 20 percent and is now 85 percent of pre-pandemic year 2019. And there is still a shortage of staff here and there. Not only with the airline itself, but also with partners such as security control or ground handling.

Restrictions somewhere almost every day

But we have that under control now and we can handle it. This problem was much bigger a year ago when we were just emerging from the pandemic.” We have already recruited 600 new cabin crew members this year. There are also about 70 new pilots.” What bothers him and the entire operations team in Switzerland is the repeated strikes in Germany, France, Norway and Italy. Because its job will be to ensure smooth flight operations.

It began in February with the first warning strikes by airport staff in Germany, which continued into March. Then the air traffic controllers in France went on strike, and in April work was also stopped in Italy. “Since March, we’ve been facing some kind of external limitation almost every day,” says Bokhover.

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More flights need to be canceled than ever before

His airline had to cancel 207 flights in the first four months of the year due to strikes. Never in the history of Switzerland have we had to cancel as many flights due to various strikes as in the past 12 months. Also much more than it was in the whole tough year of 2019. » As a result, you can no longer provide the service you would like to provide to passengers as a premium airline. “We regret the impact this has had on passengers and we understand their frustration. It also upsets me greatly, as our hands are often tied and our employees put their heart and soul into their work.”

“The strikes not only mean we have to cancel entire flights, they also delay us.” And so on the exceptional days when strikes accumulated, nearly eight percent of all transported passengers lost their connection, Bokhover explains. This does not meet my specific requirements. The frequency of the blow was also reflected in the punctuality. On the worst day, six out of ten flights were delayed. “It challenges us, upsets us and drains the team.”

Especially France hurts the Swiss

Buchover and his Swiss operations team are feeling the strikes at air traffic control in France, which has been operating without interruption since March. “We are one of the foreign airlines that suffers the most,” says the manager. About 45 percent of the road network will be affected if the airspace over France is closed.

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Detour on a flight from Geneva to London due to the closure of French airspace. Photo: Swiss

Most long-distance routes to North and South America pass through France, but there are also trips to Spain, Portugal, and western North Africa. The situation in Geneva is more extreme. “Almost every flight there is flying over French territory,” says Bochover. For example, a flight to London must be routed to the British Isles via Zurich and Germany.

Much more than just losing profits

Switzerland is fighting against blows across Europe by providing more spare crews and aircraft, more staff in the Operations Control Centre, improved flight plans and routes, but also with the Lufthansa Group work teams. But above all with a lot of extra work for the operations staff. He often makes the impossible possible and pulls creative solutions out of the hat. I also admire our fellow flight attendants who continue to provide excellent service under these adverse circumstances. »

But strikes also cost money in other ways. On the one hand, the Swiss suffer a loss of profits due to the cancellation of flights, and they have to provide those affected with food and hotels and consume more fuel because their planes are forced to fly detours. “In addition to the inconvenience that our guests may experience, this year it has already cost us an average of tens of millions,” says Buchhofer.

He returned from Germany without passengers

However, something cannot be measured and expressed in francs. “Cancellations and delays hurt our image – even though we don’t have a number of factors on our hands,” Buchhofer said angrily. That is why we have taken measures to mitigate it as much as possible.”

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And last but not least, the environment also suffers. “Sometimes we have to fly at 24,000 feet because of the congestion in the upper airspace, which takes much more kerosene,” says the director. Or you can fly to Hamburg, but don’t take any passengers on the plane because the security checks weren’t working. “So we had to come back empty.” Just plain madness.

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