If they take the train to the airport, air travellers leaving Switzerland get a clear reminder of what they will shortly miss. Passengers from Bern, Geneva and Zurich airports can check in immediately at the rail terminus to stroll unencumbered through the terminal.
For air transport infrastructure, in fact, Switzerland takes the ninth spot in the WEF’s most recent Global Competitiveness Report. The 10 carriers then operating in the country use infrastructure ranked fifth for quality and operate an international air transport network rated sixth in the world.
Switzerland also emerges well for capacity – with 876,200,000 seats a week on international flights, which earns 23rd place in the listing.
As a travel destination, in fact, Switzerland has no need to reposition or to broaden its offer, says Sandra Carvao, chief, communications at the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
“Switzerland is already very well positioned to benefit from current world travel trends,” she said. “It offers high-quality products, a diversified tourism offer that caters for travel all year around and for different segments, from families to adventure travellers.”
While the winter skiing season brings additional fliers, demand from business and finance feed a mid-year bump in air travel.
Opportunity rises in the East
Yet the winning formula needs new markets. The profile of visitors is already shifting, says Urs Eberhard, Switzerland Tourism’s vice president.
“The major growth comes from Asia, the Middle East and Russia,” he told Routes News. “Our strongest source markets in 2012 were China, the Gulf countries, Russia, South East Asia – Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia – Japan, India and Australia.”
In the midterm, Asia will keep growing, he added. “We think one Asian country with strong potential for us is Indonesia, but we are also looking at Turkey.”
Asia’s emergence for inbound tourism can already be seen in new routes from Swiss, which is now focusing on Singapore, said Sonja Ptassek, a spokesperson for the carrier.
In its 2013 summer schedule, Swiss adds a daily direct flight between Zurich and Singapore. Meanwhile, Zurich–Beijing and Zurich–Newark services are switching from A340s to A330s to raise capacity.
Europe traffic falters
To some extent, though, Switzerland’s air passenger growth could be simplified as anything but Europe. As the Eurozone’s economic turmoil rumbles on, the Swiss franc has soared against the euro, pushing the destination beyond the reach of many on the continent, although Eberhard sees a silver lining.
“The high Swiss franc was certainly a factor in the decreasing number of European guests but the excellent image as a premium destination is also a contributing factor for the strong growth from Asia, the GCC and Russia,” said Eberhard.
As the logical corollary of the trend, Swiss’s summer schedule adds outbound tourism destinations such as Lisbon and Barcelona. Olbia and Catania also debut on Zurich’s departure board from July to August.
In long-haul, as well as boosting Asia routes, Swiss has bolstered connections with North America, with an A330 now flying to Newark, while Chicago flights ramp up to 11 services a week from June.
At Geneva, where Air China will fly direct to Beijing from May, only Europe is bucking the overall growth trend, said Samer Jrab, cargo and business development manager.
“Most of the regions are growing in Geneva,” he said. “However, some traditional European big hubs like Frankfurt are losing market share.”
A diverse traveller profile
In fact, while Switzerland’s core attractions have changed little since the 19th century, they now draw visitors with widely differing characteristics, says Eberhard.
In terms of age or socio-economic status, it is hard to generalise, he added. “Some markets are younger, such as Asia. Some are older, such as Germany or the UK. Some stay longer, such as those from Europe and the US. Some shorter, such as Asia. Russians come more in the winter, while tourists from Asia come more in the summer, and visitors from India tend to come in April and May.”
What unifies all these travellers is “the desire to see our mountains, our lakes and the beauty of our country”, he added.
But even more outstanding than its natural environment – ranked fourth best by WEF – is Switzerland’s customer orientation. In this, the country is second only to Japan. Across Switzerland, 4,562 hotels offered 246,311 beds at the start of 2013, according to Swiss state statistics.
Zurich stays ahead
Zurich stands out as Switzerland’s leading gateway, with 24,802,400 air passengers over 2012, a 1.8% rise on 2011.
Peter Grunig, head of aviation marketing operations, stresses the airport’s setting. “The Zurich catchment area is one of the most stable economic spaces in Europe… The propensity to travel is the second highest in Europe.”
While business demand is underpinned by international business headquarters, tourism is still growing, especially from Asia and the Middle East, he added.
To further develop its network, Zurich is spreading its net broadly, attending Routes Americas as well as Routes Asia and Routes Europe. Having recently landed Iceland Air, serving Reykjavik, and Intersky, flying to Graz and Salzburg, the airport has won back Alitalia, with flights to Rome, and attracted CSA for Prague, and Royal Air Maroc for Casablanca.
If Europe’s economy is an inescapable downdraft, Zurich’s own market is resilient, “not only in the front of the cabin but in economy as well”, he said.
“Another opportunity for the size of our market is the B787." On June 1, Qatar Airways re-started its Dreamliner flights from the gateway. Then, from January 1, 2014, Emirates will fly an A380 to Dubai, replacing an B777-300ER to add 870 seats per day.
Geneva expands capacity
Geneva also gained traffic over 2012, when it served 13,899,422 passengers, an annual increase of 5.9%.
In a recent strategy overhaul, Swiss is setting up a new operations base at Geneva and giving greater independence to its management team, with the aim of tailoring services to the Western Switzerland market.
Meanwhile, a new terminal will soon extend the airport’s capacity for widebody aircraft.
“Geneva is targeting new routes in Asia and in North and South America,” said Jrab. “We are also following closely the situation of LATAM, as we have clearly identified a real potential and growing traffic between Geneva and Säo Paolo.”
As a key selling point, Geneva can offer a dynamic local economy, he added. But he admits that a limited availability of slots, especially in the winter season, is a threat to expansion.
EasyJet, the leading airline in Geneva with a 36% market share, sees the market as ripe for further expansion. While low-cost carriers take 40% of the market across Europe, the figure for Switzerland is only 26%, said spokesperson Celine Prenez.
Business travellers, who already fill 18% of easyJet’s seats, are a key focus, she added. “We are developing a balanced product combining business and leisure destinations, looking for year-round destinations.”
This year, business services are being bolstered between Geneva and Gatwick, Paris Orly and Nice, she said.
“We invested for 7.2% capacity growth in 2012 in Switzerland to consolidate our position in Geneva and Basel and we have planned 11% capacity growth in the market in the first half of 2013,” said Prenez.
Easyjet, which bases a tenth of its fleet in Switzerland, took delivery of a 13th aircraft in Geneva in December 2012 and an eighth aircraft in Basel in March 2013.
In Basel, easyJet is also the leading carrier, with a 48% market share, she added. Zurich, while on the list for potential bases, is one of Europe’s most expensive airports, which prevents the airline from considering it under current conditions, she said.
Basel, Switzerland’s third gateway, drew 5,354,758, a 6% expansion on the previous year.
Vivienne Gaskell, a spokesperson at EuroAirport, sees Scandinavia as well as east and south east European destinations, along with New York, as current targets for new routes.
Like its larger rivals, Basel can offer a strong local economy, she added. In particular, pharmaceutical headquarters propel business travel, such as for the head offices for Roche and Novartis.
But the Alps are also nearby to attract skiers, while Basel hosts trade fairs such as Basel World and Art Basel to safeguard the gateway’s bright outlook, she added. “We cannot see any significant changes in visitor figures. We have a good mix: business, tourism, family and friends.”
With an annual total of about 200,000 passengers, Lugano’s goals are necessarily more limited in scope, although a revamp of its facilities is due to raise its capacity for expansion.
On the border with Italy, Lugano’s key tourism pull is as the gateway to the three lakes of Como, Lugano and Maggiore, said commercial and marketing director Flavia Ferrandin.
In the short-term, the city airport targets seasonal connections with cities in countries such as Germany, which provides most inbound tourism, she said. “Our long-term objective is to develop point-to-point connections with the main European capitals such as London, Paris and Berlin, which would effectively serve the market’s demand,” she added.
In her view, the arrival of Minoan Air, now flying from Lugano to Rome and Vienna, should dispel the airport’s ‘elite’ reputation and clear a misconception that the gateway is difficult to work from.
But even if the Swiss aviation sector can show positive trends at all its gateways, networks are likely to realign as well as expand.
The impact of Switzerland’s soaring franc can be seen in recent hotel occupancy figures, where the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (FSO) reported a continuing slide in January for the key tourism regions of Bernese Oberland, Graubunden and Wallis.
For UNWTO’s Carvao, the currency sets a clear challenge. “In this case, it is one of the reasons for the slow growth in international tourism to the country in the last two years,” she said.
“Yet, looking at the different markets, the picture is very different – while the number of tourists visiting Switzerland from countries in the Eurozone wend slightly down, the number of tourists from China or South America grew exponentially in 2012.”
As the Swiss tourism sector continues to tick over with the smooth precision of the country’s famous watches, the air sector’s main challenge could be to realise demand in markets that are only just discovering the country’s charms.
This article features in Routes News 2013 Issue 3