Swiss International Air Lines Ltd.
Phone: +41 848 773 773
Fax: +41 44 564 21 27
8 May 2003
You all know the feeling:
Something about your flight suddenly changes. A noise stops or sounds different, you hear something new, the aircraft’s position seems strange or turbulence makes your seat shudder unpleasantly. Only the cockpit crew knows exactly what’s going on. Those in the cabin often feel abandoned, powerless to influence their fate. Flying is not really something we are cut out to do. But those who fly nevertheless – around a million a month at SWISS – need confidence. Passengers entrust their lives to airlines.
That makes flying something very emotional, something much more than simple transport by air from A to B.
I mention this at the start of my speech, because it is perhaps a good analogy for what is happening at SWISS.SWISS is certainly a means of transport: not only for passengers, however, but also for emotions, messages and sensibilities.
Say SWISS and you can be sure of a microphone!
Since the very first day, we at SWISS have been sitting in a greenhouse. Every step we take, and, more particularly, every step we do NOT take, immediately goes under the media microscope for dissection and analysis.
Well, that was only to be expected, and I have no problems with it. SWISS is one-third financed by the government, so the tax-payer has every right to know what is going on.
Naturally, it takes a lot to get used to being woken up by the radio alarm-clock at five in the morning and hearing my name first thing, or seeing my name plastered in fat letters across every newspaper board – especially on Sundays.
I, and indeed all of us, have to deal with mistrust, pessimism, know-all attitudes, scorn, mockery and even personal criticism on a daily basis.
And I can say quite frankly: I may have a thick skin, but I’m not completely insensitive!
SWISS has become a projector screen for the sensitivity of an entire nation. It is a focus for a strange manifestation of a Swiss characteristic, namely the urge towards self-destruction, a mania for talking an idea, a project, into the ground.
“You remind me of Expo 02”, someone said to me not long ago.
I think there is more behind this than just disappointment about the failure of the Swissair myth. It is a accumulation of reactions to so many events and developments that have triggered profound shock amongst the Swiss people.
The sense of uncertainty that now prevails first appeared with the attack on the group of Swiss tourists in Luxor. People gradually became aware that a Swiss passport is no insurance against the evils of the world. The SR 111 crash exacerbated this feeling of helplessness. And there are many other factors at different levels which have contributed to this highly emotional, highly diffuse, defensive attitude: life-threatening epidemics in the form of AIDS and, more recently, the SARS virus, the Nine Eleven terrorist inferno in New York, money-grabbing managers, the collapse of the New Economy, the stock exchange crash and war as a new form of diplomacy.
At the dawn of the new millennium, our ethical coordinate system has gone off the rails. The economic crisis does not bode well for the future and feeds a widespread attitude of refusal supported by a general weariness with our so-called civilisation.
The media play a huge role in stirring up these trends. So much reporting lacks perspective, is written on a whim, is often unbalanced and irresponsible. More often than not, the principle of checks and balances does not apply. The pandering of the media to popular taste has reached new heights.
The harsh spotlight of the popular press focuses arbitrarily on anything of interest, creating a climate of unbridled prying. Anyone and anything is fair game.
Take an example just today: “Big arguments amongst SWISS executives” is the headline in the Tagesanzeiger. Yesterday, Matthias Hanke, our departing Network Manager, informed his staff in writing that SWISS is planning extensive network restructuring. In his mail, he refers to a “radical change”. As the architect of the previous network, he feels he would therefore not be suited to implementing the restructuring. The Tagesanzeiger turns this into a report of “a dispute amongst top executives about the future direction of SWISS”, with Hanke demanding a “radical change”, i.e. pretty much the opposite of what was in the e-mail.
And then there are the images of “Swissair against Crossair”, which the same journalist cannot resist raking up.
And yet these firms ceased to exist two years ago. The air travel industry has changed radically in that period. And neither a “Swissair” nor a “Crossair” label is enough to see us through this challenge. We need top people with “SWISS” perspectives.
That is how an internal e-mail is wilfully misinterpreted to create a non-existent dispute which not only occupies too many of our resources, but also fosters insecurity and destroys confidence.
Flying requires confidence!
“Confidence is a delicate plant. Once destroyed, it may not be so quick to return”, said Prince Otto von Bismarck.
He was not in the air travel business, but I can certainly confirm his sentiment.
How shall I nurture such a delicate plant?
In business as in all other circles, there is only one way:
“Act with credibility”
SWISS must exude credibility and authority. And it does, because it is an excellent brand, a respected trademark. As proven by our first-class reputation abroad.
In Switzerland, however, it is rather more difficult as I have just described.
As a pilot, I know that violent movements at that controls are not what are needed. We will correct our course firmly, and prudently.
What we have to achieve:
Safety always was, and always will be, our prime concern
More improvements to our product
Consistent strategy statements
Clear, regular communication
That last point is not so easy to achieve. All too often, the media are fed all kinds of information, both true and untrue. Even, on occasions, by our own staff. Usually motivated by personal gain, it is all too easy to find media willing to connive in such schemes.
Outside Switzerland, people cannot understand this widespread negative attitude towards SWISS. Can you imagine the Italians attacking their Alitalia in the same way, or the French Air France or the English British Airways?
National pride may no longer be enough to ensure success these days, but we damn well won’t succeed without it!
We need the whole country’s confidence if SWISS is to succeed.
And I am pleased to report that people are beginning to realise this: the air travel industry is on the brink of disaster; this year, for the third time running, the IATA airlines will generate over 12 billion dollars in losses!
You all know why: a sluggish economy, the conflict in Iraq, the SARS epidemic.
As a start-up company, SWISS also faces additional difficulties. We cannot fall back on a long history of success. On the contrary, we have to drag our Swissair heritage around with us every day. And whilst that may help create confidence, it is not so helpful when trying to arrange credit facilities.
Should the free market be left to decide whether we succeed or not? Or should priority be accorded to the national need for our own, direct intercontinental connections as an indispensable prerequisite for the export-oriented Swiss economy?
Last week, the government stated its view very clearly: SWISS has a role to play in ensuring direct connections with the global air travel network. But as an independent, private company – as indeed we always have been. We have never asked for further government funding!
The government has also said it will to all it can to ensure optimum operating conditions in the air travel industry.
A similar clear commitment on the part of the government was formulated after the failure of Swissair; similar support has also been voiced by the parliament and the world of business; it is what led to the launch of SWISS in December 2001.
It was important, therefore, that the government reminded people in clear terms of the original idea, especially in the hurly-burly of the economic crisis, and in an election year.
We still have a long and difficult way to go before we have everyone’s confidence, before we saw SWISS successful at last.
Our employees are doing a fantastic job under extremely difficult circumstances.
And I can assure you: the great majority of our staff of 9000 stands firmly behind SWISS. I felt this very strongly at yesterday’s staff information meetings in Zurich and Basel. There is little sympathy for protesting pilots. We are doing all we can to solve this thorny problem once and for all, and to bring these pilots back on board with us.
It is my duty to lead SWISS to success.
And even if the wind blows hard against us: my team and I intend to carry on, giving of our very best!
So what can you do, ladies and gentlemen, to help your SWISS?
Many of you already do so, and we are very pleased about that!
And if you believe we are needed, and that we have earned your confidence, then please tell other people how you feel.