New Swiss airline to be leaner

Swiss Air Lines, the successor to Swissair, will be focused directly on the airline business and the new company will also be leaner than its predecessor, its Gulf area manager Felix Rodel tells JONNA SIMON.

Q: Swissair is to become Swiss Air Lines - in essence does this mean a change in the airline or is it in fact Swissair under another name?

A: It is a new company under a new legal ownership and the old Swissair as such will be terminated by the end of March this year. What emerges under the future legal name of Swiss Air Lines is going to be totally new company.

Today it is under the legal ownership of Crossair, a former subsidiary of Swissair. Swissair and Crossair are an amalgamation, which is forming a new Swiss national carrier.

Q: What influence do you expect Crossair to bring to the new company?

A: Crossair's main advantage is that it does not come with any of the baggage that weighted down the old company, namely the history of expansion and partnerships with other European carriers that became a burden for the old company.

Crossair is also a relatively young company of about 20 years, a regional upstart you could say, but one of the leading regional carriers in Europe.

Crossair has a much leaner organisational structure, a much more direct approach to the airline industry than Swissair, which gives cost benefits on one side and a leaner and faster side offering us much more speed.

From a marketing point of view, it will be much more focused directly on the airline industry and also more focused on the other companies under the old Swissair brand.

Q: Emirates Airline has indicated that traffic in December last year and in January this year was just about back to normal. Was this also the case for your airline?

A: We would have to look at both how Crossair and Swissair are doing, because we continue to operate as two separate companies until the end of March.

If I look at my area, the GCC and the Gulf region, and I compare with same periods last year in sales, we have done better, which I take to indicate that traffic in this region has not been as badly affected as in Europe or on the transatlantic sectors.

All airlines operating the North American sector suffered a downturn following September 11 last year.

Q: Dose Swissair fly to the US?

A: Yes, we do, we had 12 destinations in the US, but in this interim period, we have reduced the destinations to eight.

Q: I believe Swissair serves Riyadh, Jeddah, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Muscat in the Gulf - do you intend to continue with all these gateways?

A: From Dubai we also serve Pakistan, so the route is Switzerland-Dubai and Pakistan four times a week. The route also continues to Muscat three times a week. We are going to continue with this route pattern into the summer, thus passengers can book these destinations already today or tomorrow.

Q: Dubai seems to be the most booming of these destinations - is it business or leisure traffic flying between Zurich and Dubai? Ratio in percentages, please.

A: Dubai has a mix of both categories of passengers, but it is a seasonal affair. If you look at the flow of traffic from Dubai to Europe and North America, which is the window we actually serve, the ratio is 60 per cent business and 40 per cent leisure during the winter months.

In the summer, the ratio is reversed and we sometimes have up to 70-80 per cent leisure and just 20-30 per cent business passengers.

However, it is difficult to separate real business from leisure, because in this market, it is often combined.

If we look at Europe, the winter segment is about 60 per cent leisure and 40 per cent business.

Q: There seems to be a number of Swiss tourists coming to the Gulf by charter flights - is this a worrying trend for Swissair?

A: I believe that the charter business is going to increase in the future. The Dubai Government has announced that it wants 15 million visitors by the year 2010. National carriers will naturally increase their frequencies, but it will also mean more charter flights to Dubai.

Does it worry me? No, the charter traffic caters to a new segment of travellers, which is not here much yet, basically the package tourism deals.

This could be a segment that Dubai would have to tap into in the future. At the moment it is not encouraged or pushed, but in the future it will come, if the emirate is determined to reach the quoted numbers of visitors.

Q: Yields seem to have dropped through the floor for all airlines serving Dubai and presumably Swissair has encountered the same problem? What do you think is the answer? And can airlines survive on such low yields?

A: The yield question is always tied in with the availability of seats and also tied in with the demand. In the aftermath of September 11 last year, demand dropped, because people were reluctant to fly and tourists were not travelling into this region. But, in the next couple of months I think we will see a return to normal figures.

As a result of the US attacks, airlines cut back seats and frequencies due to the lack of demand. We have cut back frequencies to Abu Dhabi from five to three a week for instance.

The yield question is also always a seasonal phenomenon, but also due to September 11, the yields were cut down in order to attract more business.

Dubai has been exemplary in aggressively going out to announce that this is a safe place to visit, a place where visitors receive great value for money.

They lowered the hotel rates among other things, and once demand reacts to this campaign, the yields will come back again.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your cargo business - do you expect the new Swiss Air Lines to maintain the share of the freight market in this region?

A: Swissair has a separate division for cargo with a different manager, but I can tell you, what I know about the plans.

Swisscargo as it is named today, is a separate company within the Swissair Holding Group. It is going to be amalgamated into Crossair and given a new name, which has not been decided yet, the same amount of capacity is going to be offered this summer as today, so they are going to be active in the market selling cargo space.

Q: Does Swissair have any special offers for Dubai passengers?

A: February is traditionally the month for promotions. So we had a special to Zurich, which was priced at AED1,600 plus taxes and we also have a special leisure product of stop-overs or skiing activities.

Q: Are you involved in the Dubai Shopping Festival?

A: No we are not. I think, it is more of a regional issue and most of the visitors during this period come from other GCC states.

Q: Is the skiing market in Switzerland a segment, which ought to be further developed? Or is this already taking place?

A: Switzerland and Europe are well-known as summer destinations in the region and it appeals to a lot of nationals to go to Lake Geneva on summer vacations, but we are trying to introduce the idea that Switzerland has two main seasons - summer and winter - and we have been offering skiing activities as well as other sports and leisure activities, but it is a process taking time.

We began the promotion last year and we are continuing with this promotion not just for resident expatriates, but also trying to entice nationals.

Q: Is the airline planning any new destinations this year or in the near future in the Middle East/Gulf area?

A. As the area manager of this region I will be pushing for a destination like Abu Dhabi to be used much more with increased frequencies. As an airline with a network to serve, we are always on the lookout for new opportunities and there are already destinations being investigated such as Dammam in Saudi Arabia, for instance.

* Swiss-born Felix Rodel has been with the airline for more than 28 yeas and has served in Moscow and New Delhi before being posted in the Middle East in September 2000 as area manager responsible for the Arabian Gulf and works from the Swissair office in Dubai.

He oversees sales, marketing, administration and personnel covering the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Doha reporting to vice-president, sales Middle East, North Africa and India based in Brussels.

Rodel is fluent in German, English and French and has a basic knowledge of Russian. His hobbies include sailing, canoeing, hiking, internet, reading, traveling and historical subjects.