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22. July 2004

 

Belair's People Make The Difference

 

Belair is a young airline focused on charter flights. As part of the Hotelplan group, it operates three aircraft for the parent company out of Zurich. Michael Meier joined the crew on a flight to learn more about the company and to take a look behind the scenes.

Gate E57, Zurich Airport. The last pieces of luggage have just been loaded into the Boeing 767-300ER which is being readied for our long-haul flight to the Caribbean. And while the passengers are entering the aircraft, the cockpit crew just finished the last preparations. Everything is ready for another flight to paradise.

The loadmaster leaves the aircraft with his papers while the pilots are going through their pre-start checklists. Everything is fine and we are ready to close the doors for our 9.23 hours flight to Puerto Plata, a famous holiday destination in the Dominican Republic.

 

Our home for 9.23 hours. The Boeing 767-300ER. (Photo: Michael Meier)

 

Our aircraft for the trip is Belair's sole Boeing 767-300ER, equipped with 250 seats. Today, 190 seats are booked but with one person not showing up, our plane is pushed back from the gate with 189 passengers, plus two pilots and seven flight attendants.

It is a rather slow morning in Zurich while we taxi to runway 16. We are already number two in the departure sequence after a Swiss Airbus A320. It doesn't take long until we line up and get our take off clearance. The two Pratt & Whitney engines are roaring while the captain pushes the throttle levers and we are speeding down the runway. Our aircraft is not that heavy today and it doesn't take a long run until our bird leaves the ground.

 

Getting ready for departure (Photo: Michael Meier)

 

Just after taking off, the mighty Boeing is banking to the left, as the pilots initiate a turn to follow our departure path out of Zurich. A last view back to the airport beyond and away we are, on our way to a sunny place, far away from Switzerland. And while we're heading west, let's have a closer look to our airline.


Roots of an airline

Belair is the charter airline of Hotelplan, a leading tour operator in Switzerland. As a subsidiary of the Migros group (Migros Genossenschafts Bund), Hotelplan is part of the most powerful retail trade company in Switzerland. Migros is organised as a cooperative and comprises many subsidiaries, like Hotelplan in the leisure travel business.

During the years, the Hotelplan chain saw constant growth and in 2000, two new Boeing 757-200s were acquired, to fly customers to their holidays. But at that time, Belair didn't exist yet. Instead, the SAir Group's charter division Balair operated the aircraft.

Both Boeing 757-2G5s were delivered to Balair fresh from the Boeing factory in Seattle. They were number 919 and 922 to leave the 757's production line (constructing numbers 29379 and 30394). The initial aircraft was delivered by 19. April 2000 with the second joining the fleet by 28. April 2000. Both are equipped with Rolls Royce RB211-535E4 turbofans. The birds are registered as HB-IHR and HB-HIS.

 

One of Belair's 757s at Zurich Airport. (Photo: Michael Meier)

 

The two 757s joined the existing Balair fleet of two Boeing 767-300 aircraft assigned to long-haul charter flights, but not exclusively for Hotelplan. Balair had a long history in the long haul charter business; they were operating DC-10 and A310s in earlier years.

But the partnership between Balair and Hotelplan suddenly came to an end when the SAir Group collapsed in 2001. Dr. Beat Schaer, then CEO of Swissair and Balair, needed to find a new solution for the staff and the operations of Balair before November 1st.

Hotelplan and the SAir Group agreed to act as partners in the continuation of business operations by Balair. But due to the miserable financial conditions of Balair, it was not an option to simply take the company over. Instead, Hotelplan decided to start a completely new airline and apply for a new AOC (Air Operator Certificate). What was taken over was the staff and a part of the fleet, the two Boeing 757-200s which were already owned by Hotelplan. That way, the people's knowledge could be transferred into the new company while the financial ballast was left behind.

  Dr. Beat Schär, Belair's CEO

The new airline was called Belair. The brand appearance was left as it was before, just the first 'A' out of Balair had to be replaced with an 'E'. Many customers didn't even notice the change. But even so, from a legal standpoint, Belair is a completely new company.

Initially, it was also planned to take one Boeing 767 into the new company, but due to the poor situation of the global travel market after the 9/11 terror attacks, Hotelplan decided against the long haul aircraft and just the Boeing 757-200s were taken over to the new company.

The whole founding process, including governmental certifications, took just three weeks, and by November 1st, the two Boeing 757-200s were flying for the new Belair. Quite an achievement, as the certification of a new airline really isn't an easy process.

Dr. Beat Schaer, the leading force behind the project, took the CEO post at Belair, after he resigned from the bankrupt Swissair. Beside him, 120 employees in the air and on the ground joined him at the new company.

As part of the Hotelplan group, Belair has a slightly different focus than the old Balair. As an integrated part of a tour operator, the airline can focus on its core work while the tour operator is responsible for the distribution. And obviously, this concept is working fine. Belair's result for the first full year of operations is positive, the company achieved a turnover of 123.8 Millions Swiss Francs in 2003.


Going overseas

As mentioned above, the airline was focused to the wider Mediterranean area while Hotelplan purchased the needed capacity to overseas destinations on the market. As an example, Lauda Air operated flights from Zurich to certain places in the Caribbean, but Hotelplan didn't buy all the seats on these planes, Lauda made an additional stop in Vienna to load more passengers from the Austrian market.

Shopping for capacity is probably cheaper and easier than operating an own aircraft, but can you get the quality and the flexibility you are looking for? Hotelplan does certainly have more control about the service offered on its own airline. It may be a more expensive solution, but at the same time, Hotelplan is in full control of the details.

 

Into the sun. Photo taken after take off at Zurich, bound for Puerto Plata. (Photo: Michael Meier)

 

After detailed studies, Belair started to operate long-haul routes in July 2002. To do so, a Boeing 767-300ER was leased from ILFC (International Lease and Finance Company). Belair secured a pretty good deal for the wide body aircraft. Beside a small monthly fee, the airline does only have to pay for the number of hours flown. That means that Belair doesn't need to pay as long as the aircraft is on the ground. If fewer flights are operated, the leasing costs are going down too.

The used aircraft market was weak at the time Belair was looking for a new bird, with many 767s waiting for a new operator. And in these times, leasing companies were more open to unconventional deals, a flying aircraft is always better than one rotting in a dessert somewhere.

To be exact, the new member of the fleet is a Boeing 767-3Q8ER, it was the 655th Boeing 767 produced (construction number 27600). Belair took delivery of the aircraft by 29th May 2002. Previously, the 767 was flying for the Italian charter carrier Air Europe since April 1997.The aircraft has been registered as HB-ISE in Switzerland and named "Rondo Mondo" when it joined the Belair fleet. The Boeing, powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW4060 engines is certified to operate under ETOPS flight rules.

Belair's pilots have a multi type rating for the 757/767 family. That way, they are able to fly both types in the fleet. Due to the cockpit commonality of the two aircraft types, a change is possible after a short instruction course where the differences between the two aircrafts are learned.

Operating different aircraft of the same family (757/767) enables the company to keep its duty rosters as flexible as possible. An important point, especially for small airlines with aircraft types for different missions. And by the way, the possibility to change between short- and long haul trips makes the job much more interesting to the pilots. The same is valid for the rest of the flying crew too; flight attendants are also working on both types throughout the network.


Far away from the Coastlines

Back to our flight now. In the meantime, we have passed France, Spain is left behind too. We are far away from the coastlines. Our flight path directed us into the middle of the Atlantic, with very few traffic. It's not much going on right now, just a few short conversations with New York Centre, which is responsible for this area in the middle of nowhere.

 

An office with a view... (Photo: Michael Meier)

 

After more than nine hours our island finally comes in sight. We are reducing our altitude and approach the island from the East. What a nice sight. We are now following the shoreline to our destination, Puerto Plata in the North. While the passengers enjoy the incredible view of the island, it gets busy again in the front office. The pilots are getting ready for the landing. Cards are prepared, instruments adjusted and pre landing checklists processed. At the same time, we keep an eye on the LTU Airbus A330, a few hundred feet below; they are due to land in front of us. The LTU turns into short final and touches down on the runway. And after the bird from Germany left the runway, it's our turn to land.

The approach into Puerto Plata is quite challenging and special. The runway is located between the mountains and the sea. An aircraft couldn't safely perform a go around in case of an aborted landing when it would land towards the hills. Therefore, landings are performed from the other side. That means that an inbound aircraft first approaches the mountains in the back of the airport. The pilots are then performing a 180 degree turn in low altitude to get onto the final approach path. Quite an impressive sight, from the ground and from the cockpit. But don't worry, our pilots have been well trained for that. They know the airport and they know the challenges. Our landing is very smooth today, as expected.

 

Puerto PLata's (POP) runway during short final. The mountains are in our back, the sea in front. (Photo: Michael Meier)

 

While we arrive at the gate and the engines are turned off, our journey on Belair's flight from Zurich to Puerto Plata comes to an end. And a long working day for our crew is over too. The crew is now catching a commuter flight to Punta Cana; the Dominican Republic's other holiday destination. That's where their next working shift will start some days later.

In the meantime, a new crew is flying our Boeing 767-300ER to Cancun in Mexico and all the way back to Zurich. And in just a few days, the very same aircraft will be back on the island, in Punta Cana to be exact, where our known crew is taking it over for the leg back to home.

The strategy to operate triangle-flights is frequently used in Belair's network. In the same way as our flight is routed from Zurich to Puerto Plata and Cancun, many other Belair destinations are served in the same way. Vancouver is served via Calgary while the flight to San Francisco is doing a short stop in Las Vegas.

Serving more than one station with a triangle-flight enables the airline to add more frequencies to all the destinations, which wouldn't justify a weekly capacity of 252 seats, as available on the Boeing 767-300ER. Capacity out of Switzerland is limited, especially on long haul routes. To deal with that situation, combining flights is a flexible solution to offer convenient frequencies. And despite the longer flight times, most passengers are obviously content with triangle flights.


Flexible Solutions

It was mentioned before, Switzerland is not a very big market. Swiss people do really like to travel, but the volumes still are small. Combining flights to more than one destination is one solution to handle the situation, another one is cooperation.

Since 2002, Belair has a small cooperation with Edelweiss, the second charter airline in Switzerland offering long haul service. Edelweiss is a subsidiary of Kuoni, Switzerland's largest company in the tour operating business. Edelweiss is operating a fleet of Airbus A320s and one Airbus A330. Under the cooperation, the airlines are operating some flights in code share.

This partnership really is remarkable, considering that Kuoni and Hotelplan are tough competitors. But a limited market calls for flexible solutions. And the competition is still working. TUI Suisse, part of the TUI group has recently announced that it will transfer its long haul charter needs to Belair. TUI's customers are now flying with Belair out of Zurich, Edelweiss has lost this deal. TUI Suisse has reviewed its charter needs after Kouni sold its stake of 49% in TUI Suisse.

Despite the TUI deal, Belair will continue to work with Edelweiss on certain flights, as they did before. But it is unlikely that the two airlines are moving closer in the future, they're still competitors.

In any way, it will be interesting to see what happens next in the Swiss charter market. At the moment, Belair is very well positioned. It will be crucial to keep the costs on a moderate level while the quality of the product remains high.

 

Belair's Boeing 767-300ER, just arrived at Puerto Plata. (Photo: Michael Meier)

 


What is really important

When Beat Schaer, the company's CEO is asked about what makes his airline better than others, he always points out that the difference can only come from the people. Sure, an aircraft has to be safe, very well maintained and clean, but the employees can really make a difference. And it's in the small things too. A smiling flight attendant can really help to make a flight more enjoyable. I think everyone of us can agree to that!

Quality and a top-notch service are key priorities at Belair. To measure that, feedback cards are placed on every aircraft, encouraging the passengers to tell what they think about their flight. The printed feedback forms are directly addressed to CEO Beat Schaer. And that's not just a marketing gag, he is personally reading and answering these letters, every single one! Quite impressive, but it underlines his passion for the quality. By the way, 90% of the letters are positive, not a bad result.

While many other airlines are reducing service levels to cut costs, Belair takes a different approach. They are actually investing into the service, knowing that this is the best possible advertisement they can get. Of course, they can only do so as long as the costs are under control.

And the employees is living the CEO's message too. They are obviously appreciating the company's commitment to quality. The crews we met during our flights were very pleased with their job at Belair and they show it in everything they do.

During our flight from to Puerto Plata and later back to Zurich, we have experienced just that service. The staff has always been very friendly and professional. It was a real pleasure.

Belair's people really make the difference!

Michael Meier

 

The Boeing 767-300ER at the gate at Zurch, waiting for the next rotation. (Photo: Michael Meier)

 

At this point, we would like to thank Dr. Schaer, Mr. Hasler, Mr. Frei and all crews during our flights for their valued support during this project. This report would not have been possible without them!

 

 

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