Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Talk With Swiss Air CEO Harry Hohmeister

EN ROUTE TO ZURICH - Aboard Swiss International Air Lines' flight 039 en route to Zurich from San Francisco, the first order of business after the pre-take-off flute of Champagne is a tete a tete with the carrier's CEO. For this I moved up to first class where, Harry Hohmeister, a tall, lanky 46 year old, was sitting.

This LX 039 was the first-ever Swiss flight to Zurich, the Swiss financial and technology center, from San Francisco, the titular capital of California's Silicon Valley high-tech whirl. Hohmeister made it clear that business travelers are driving the new, six-day-a-week, nonstop service.

"Ideally, what percentage of business and corporate travel would you like to see on this route?" I asked.

"100 percent,'' Hohmeister shot back, smiling. Realistically, he added, it will probably be about 35 percent. But given that business travelers typically pay premium prices, filling a third of the new Airbus A340 - the biggest plane in Swiss's fleet - with high-fliers will not be too shabby.

Swiss is now a member of the Lufthansa Group, having gone belly-up as an independent carrier in 2001. Hohmeister is himself German, but he emphasized in our interview that Swiss retains its corporate identity, its livery - a white cross on a backdrop of red, i.e., the national flag of Switzerland - and a bit of wiggle-room within Lufthansa, Germany's major airline. Lufthansa, which also encompasses Brussels Air, the British carrier bmi and Austrian Airlines, prefers to have a suite of brands rather than just one. This enables Swiss to offer direct service between San Francisco and Zurich, rather than forcing passengers to change planes in Frankfurt - and it leverages Switzerland's reputation for hospitality and efficiency.

As for those business travelers, Hohmeister pointed out that Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche purchased Bay Area bio-engineering company Genentech last year. E-Bay and Google also have significant corporate operations in Zurich, Switzerland's largest city.

"We like San Francisco and the Bay Area - it has a lot of important technology companies and environmental engineering. Also medicine and electronics. There is a high degree of linkage with Zurich's pharmaceutical companies.''

The pretty, hilly region around Zurich and its scenic lake is an incubator for "small and medium-sized environmental businesses, small start-ups,'' he told me. Switzerland is, for example, a leader in the production of commercial solar technology, and the whole Lufthansa cluster of companies is focusing on becoming more environmentally minded, experimenting with biofuels and flying lighter, less polluting and more efficient airplanes.

Although the parent Lufthansa mainline carrier is taking possession of its first Airbus A380 superjumbos, Swiss will not be flying the huge new planes. "Our own market is too small for the A380s,'' he said.

As for the other potentially game-changing new aircraft - the lighter, composite-material, fuel efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner - Swiss is taking a wait-and-see approach. "The 787 decision-making will not be this year, but we are in contact with Boeing.''

As it is, Swiss has done up an A340 is swirling, psychedelic-style designs, recalling the flower power age in hippie-era San Francisco, when the Haight-Ashbury district was briefly the center of the universe. The design was chosen by 30,000 voters in a contest by a Swiss newspaper.

There's nothing retro or nostalgic about the new Swiss business class, which I flew on the way back to San Francisco, on flight LX038. (I'll write about that in another post shortly.) With seats that convert to true flat-beds, plenty of personal space and an advanced in-flight entertainment system, the new Swiss business class - being rolled out over the next year or so -"is a very good product that is Swiss-based. You will not find a better business class anywhere.''

Hohmeister also weighed in on political matters dear to the heart of European airline executives. Like most of his counterparts, Hohmeister - a former Lufthansa and Thomas Cook executive who became CEO of Swiss last July - supports creation of a unified continental air-traffic control system. Known in aviation shorthand as "a single European sky,'' such a reform could cut operating costs on some routes by up to 25 percent, he said.

Hohmeister looks with disfavor on a new tax on air travel that Germany plans to institute this year as one means to pare its budget deficit. The tax could generate up to $1 billion USD a year in revenue for Berlin, German government officials estimate.

The industry opposes "taxes for environmental reasons that are going to the government. Where is the money we spend going to go?" If it was to go directly to environmental agencies and causes, and not into a general fund, it might be acceptable. "Then I would not be against it,'' he said.

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