Regional upstarts lead Swiss recovery

 - October 23, 2006, 11:07 AM

Switzerland’s long ambulatory regional airline business finally appears headed toward recovery, having registered an increase in passenger boardings for the first time in several years during this year’s first semester. A resurgent economy and a stronger travel market in general led to the long-awaited turnaround, but without the efforts of new regional airlines FlyBaboo in Geneva and Darwin Airline from Lugano, any move toward buoyancy in the regional air travel business might well have fallen flat.

National flag carrier Swiss, recently taken over by Lufthansa, continues its gradual retreat from the regional market, announcing yet another restructuring exercise that will see it move all its 50-seat airplanes out of the fleet by next year. Although it does plan to add more 80- to 90-seat BAE Avro RJs, the changes will result in yet another capacity cut.

Among Switzerland’s regional airports, Lugano has emerged as one of the clear beneficiaries of the recent upswing. There, the number of scheduled passengers rose to 84,682 during the first half, from 71,148 during the same period last year. FlyBaboo and Darwin, competing fiercely on the Geneva-Lugano link, have undoubtedly contributed to the increase with cheap fares. Darwin also flies from its base to Zurich, Bern, Rome, Paris, London City and, during the summer holiday season, Olbia on the island of Sardinia. The airline started operations last year with two Saab 2000s it took from Swiss, and has just added a third. FlyBaboo started in 2003 with one 50-seat de Havilland Dash 8-300, and quickly added a second aircraft of the same type to its fleet. The young regional hopes to acquire one or two 72-seat Bombardier Q400s next year.

Zurich and Geneva, Switzerland’s largest airports with 17 million and 8.5 million of annual passenger throughput respectively, have also benefited from increasing demand for regional links, although statistics do not distinguish between “regional” and short-haul mainline traffic. Overall, scheduled traffic increased by 10 percent during this year’s first half compared with the same period a year earlier at both airports. Meanwhile, the mostly regional EuroAirport of Basel, which also serves Switzerland’s neighboring communities in France and Germany, announced a 25-percent increase in passengers during the first half.

Unfortunately for some others, the recovery hasn’t spread to every corner of the country. From Bern, for example, Lufthansa’s three round trips a day to and from Munich and Darwin’s two daily flights to London City and Lugano account for the last scheduled service. Since the 1980s a rail link has connected Bern directly to Zurich airport, and modernization has cut travel time from 90 to 75 minutes–not much more time than most inhabitants of large European centers need to get to their closest airports.

Where traffic has rebounded, airports have had to spend some money on infrastructure improvements, most notably landing aids. In Basel, increasing traffic makes necessary more direct approaches from the south to avoid circling in the terminal zone. Hence, the airport plans to equip Runway 34 with an ILS. In Zurich, restrictions imposed by Germany on low approaches over its territory forced authorities to equip Runways 28 and 32 with ILSs for landings from the east and south.

Lugano, meanwhile, must deal with a special infrastructure problem, namely the ILS approach to Runway 19 over Monte Piambello, which peaks at 3,700 feet above sea level. Under the current procedure, approaching aircraft descend at 6 degrees along the glide path–within reach of FlyBaboo’s Dash 8-300s but not Darwin’s 5.5-degree-limited Saab 2000s. With sufficient visibility, Darwin’s pilots can fly around the right flank of Monte Piambello for a VFR landing on Runway 01.

In case of strong tailwinds, they can fly the ILS glideslope to a defined point, then overfly the airport and position to land on Runway 19. Such an approach requires horizontal visibility of 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), versus 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) for a steep direct ILS approach on Runway 01. After a routine check in the summer of 2003, Swiss authorities decided to change the approach of Lugano’s Runway 01 ILS to an angle of 6.65 degrees. Since practically no regional airliner is certified to fly such steep descents, they agreed to make the ILS glideslope angle six degrees for a two-year transition period ending October 31.

In the meantime the authority has agreed to extend the transition period, pending the completion of infrastructure improvements. Proposals include lengthening the runway at both ends, installing more visual aids, including strobe lights directing landing aircraft to Runway 01’s threshold (only 300 yards from the shore of Lake Lugano), and studies of more alternative landing procedures, including a “bent” guided approach around the slopes of Monte Piambello.