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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crash Puts Swissair Rescue in Doubt

GENEVA -- Switzerland's already fragile efforts to salvage a viable airline out of the remains of its bankrupt national carrier, Swissair, were set back substantially by the crash over the weekend of a plane operated by its designated successor, Crossair.

Twenty-four people were killed when the small jet plunged into the woods while approaching the Zurich airport in poor weather Saturday evening. The crash was the second fatal accident in two years for Crossair, Europe's biggest regional airline, which is supposed to assume the mantle of Swissair, once among Switzerland's best-known symbols of reliability.

News of the accident shook confidence in the complex rescue deal patched together by Swiss government and industry leaders who had hoped to preserve the prestige and efficiency of a national airline. Its timing was especially troublesome because it coincided with the Belgian government's announcement that it would sue Swissair for $775 million in damages for failing to live up to a deal to resuscitate Sabena, the Belgian national carrier.

Swissair, which owned 49.5 percent of Sabena as part of a failed European expansion strategy, collapsed under a mountain of debt when international air passenger traffic evaporated after Sept. 11.

The plan to revive part of Swissair through Crossair has also been plagued in recent weeks by protests of former Swissair workers who are angry over layoffs and severance packages. It has been hampered, too, by political divisions over the wisdom of the government's major cash infusion into what has been nicknamed the Phoenix plan.

Crossair's prior accident in January 2000, in which 10 people died after a plane crashed shortly after taking off from the Zurich airport, led to an official inquiry on the 25-year-old regional airline's safety record. Crossair grew rapidly in the 1990's to a 77-plane fleet, largely by holding costs far below those of mainstream airlines. Although its safety procedures were found acceptable by Swiss and international investigators after the 2000 crash, the memory of that accident and the one this weekend have raised the question of whether Crossair is ready and able to handle taking over the bulk of Swissair's flight operations.

"It's devilish," said Basler Zeitung, a leading newspaper in Basel, where Crossair is based. "Barely have Crossair and the Phoenix survival project made a small step forward than there is another setback."

Crossair was already facing great difficulties in rebuilding passenger confidence after Swissair's abrupt collapse last month, which stranded nearly 40,000 passengers worldwide for two days while the airline begged its banks for cash to operate.

Even though the Swiss government eventually stepped in with guarantees to keep Swissair flying until March, many passengers switched to rivals, and some travel agencies refused to book on Swissair unless passengers signed a waiver of responsibility.

Safety concerns will loom large in determining whether passengers trust the new Crossair-Swissair. The flight data and cockpit recorders from Saturday's crash were recovered quickly, and their analysis was to be ready by Tuesday.

Crossair said the pilot was very experienced, the plane was only five years old and the plane had been thoroughly inspected a week before the crash. A spokesman told Swiss radio that while snow was falling, the weather was not bad enough to warrant canceling the flight.

Also figuring in the public's acceptance of the deal are the legal uncertainties surrounding Sabena and the likelihood that the merger of two very different corporate cultures -- the patrician Swissair and the scrappier Crossair -- will be bumpy.

Swissair workers went on strike for half a day at Geneva's airport last week over pay cuts -- pilots' pay fell 25 percent and cabin crew pay fell 9.4 percent, retroactive to Nov. 1, under the rescue plan -- and they are demanding more severance benefits from the government.

Crossair workers have also complained that their founder and chairman, Moritz Suter, was excluded from the board of the merged airline.