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Invading Switzerland? Try Before 8 or After 5

By Benedikt Kammel and Jan-Henrik Foerster
February 17, 2014 10:27 AM EST 73 Comments
Police evacuate passengers from an Ethiopian Airlines flight en route to Rome, which was on hijacked and forced to land in Geneva.
Photographer: Richard Juilliart/AFP via Getty Images
Police evacuate passengers from an Ethiopian Airlines flight en route to Rome, which was on hijacked and forced to land in Geneva.

Want to invade Switzerland? Here’s a tip: strike outside office hours.

When an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise aircraft carrying 202 passengers entered Swiss airspace today after being hijacked by the co-pilot en route to Rome, Switzerland’s Air Force remained on the ground. That’s because the incident occurred outside normal office hours. Instead, French and Italian fighter jets escorted the Boeing 767 to a safe landing in Geneva.

“You have a budget and you have to prioritize,” said Swiss Air Force spokesman Juerg Nussbaum. While Switzerland monitors airspace around the clock, intervention only occurs during routine business hours starting at 8 a.m., he said.

The Ethiopian plane, which originated in Addis Ababa, landed in Geneva shortly after 6 a.m. and the co-pilot gave himself up to police after sliding down a rope from the cockpit window. Authorities briefly closed the airport, and by early afternoon it had resumed normal service.

Direct Democracy in the Home of Nestle and Novartis

As it passed through Egyptian airspace, the Ethiopian carrier flashed a hijacking code. That alerted Italian officials, who scrambled Eurofighter aircraft. Later, a duo of French Mirage 2000s escorted the airliner to Geneva. Both Italy and France have permission to enter Swiss airspace.

The relaxed attitude toward today’s breach comes just a week after Swiss voters approved a plan to toughen border restrictions and curb immigration. Swiss officials say that the Ethiopian co-pilot is unlikely to receive asylum, and that he faces as many as 20 years in prison.

Alpine Skies

Swiss voters will soon get a chance to decide whether to help the Air Force secure the Alpine skies with more modern fighter jets. On May 18, the country will vote whether to buy 22 Saab AB (SAABB) Gripen jets in a purchase valued at 3.1 billion Swiss francs ($3.47 billion).

Switzerland selected the single-engine jet in 2011 over the Dassault Aviation SA (AM) Rafale fighter and the Typhoon built by a consortium of Airbus Group (AIR), BAE Systems Plc (BA/) and Finmeccanica SpA. (FNC) Deliveries of the planes to replace Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) F-5 Tigers would begin in 2018.

Opponents of the deal collected the required 50,000 signatures to force a national vote on the purchase. Sixty-three percent of Swiss oppose the purchase of the Gripen and 60 percent say Switzerland doesn’t need any new combat planes, according to a September poll by Isopublic.

Today wasn’t the first time Switzerland’s Air Force has relied on outside help. Neighboring Austria deployed Eurofighter Typhoons to secure the airspace of the World Economic Forum 2014 in Davos last month and during the European Football Championship in Austria and Switzerland in 2008.

Nussbaum said the Swiss will review their deployment plans to be able to deploy jets more spontaneously.

“We are planning to increase Air Force staff,” he said, “to do interventions in the future.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Benedikt Kammel in Berlin at bkammel@bloomberg.net; Jan-Henrik Forster in Zurich at jforster20@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mariajose Vera at mvera1@bloomberg.net

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