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Behind the scenes: Repatriation and cargo flights

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SWISS and Edelweiss have been performing special flights almost every day for the past few weeks to bring stranded travellers back home to Switzerland and to transport vital cargo. Charter services are nothing new to us, of course. But not only do the current repatriation and cargo charters require a lot more preparation and handling than usual: they have also seen a surge in demand in the present crisis. To add to the challenge, our people in the various SWISS and Edelweiss units involved are also collaborating under unusual conditions – with many of them working from home – to get these vital special flights organized and performed.

To coordinate the unusual repatriation and cargo flights, SWISS and Edelweiss created a new “Repatriation & Belly Freighter Task Force” some weeks ago. The task force consists of specialists from Network, Cargo, Charter Sales, External Relations, Flight Operations, Crew Control, Ground Services, Safety & Security, Maintenance, Controlling and further units, and interacts every day (weekends included) to make these complex flight operations happen, despite the constantly changing provisions in the countries and at the destinations involved. These flights often entail obtaining complex clarifications and special exemptions, too – though here, at least, our task force is ably supported by the Swiss authorities and the various Swiss embassies abroad.

From Santiago to Auckland

SWISS and Edelweiss are currently taking their aircraft to places you’ll never find in our regular schedules. And over the last few weeks they have already brought home several thousand Swiss nationals from all over the globe in an unprecedented repatriation programme that is being conducted by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA).

Our two airlines are working closely with the FDFA – which commissions the flights concerned – to plan these repatriation operations. The programme is an impressive one: repatriation flights have already been performed from Bogota, Buenos Aires, Quito, Santiago de Chile, Cancun, Punta Cana, Tunis, Algiers, Casablanca, Douala, Yaoundé, Dubai, Mauritius, Bangkok, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Phuket, Vientiane, Goa, Dubai, Auckland, Sydney, Mumbai, Delhi, Guatemala, Cape Town, Belgrade, Kiev, Podgorica, Kolkata and Kochi. Regrettably, we were unable to meet all the FDFA’s requests: a repatriation flight from Cebu in the Philippines, for instance, had to be declined by both SWISS and Edelweiss because the conditions for the Cebu ground handling just didn’t meet our carriers’ safety and security standards.

Our Boeing 777 HB-JNK is taking off in Auckland, 18,386 km away.

Many obstacles

As soon as a request for a special flight is received, the first step for our task force is to determine if we can perform it. This decision depends largely on the local situation at the destination concerned: the traffic rights and slots, the current immigration/emigration provisions, and the availability of fuel, local hotels and catering uplifts for our passengers and crew.

As part of its planning, the task force team will also determine what type of aircraft we should use to pick up the stranded travellers. This decision – short- or long-haul aircraft, and from which airline – depends among other things on the distances that need to be flown and the number of travellers who need to be brought home. Local parameters at the destination such as runway length and fuel availability will also be key considerations.

Wherever circumstances permit, it’s an Edelweiss Airbus A340 that is our aircraft of choice, as it has both a high capacity (for 314 passengers) and a long range. For destinations too far afield for the A340 (or if there’s no Edelweiss A340 available), it’s a SWISS Boeing 777 that we’ll use. In case of lower passenger volumes or shorter distances, Airbus A320, A220 and A330 are also planned for return flights.

The aircraft type used will also determine the size of the cockpit and cabin crew needed, whose members will be called up by Edelweiss or SWISS Crew Planning. In some cases we’ll also take an additional crew along on the outbound flight, to work the return flight and thereby minimize the destination turnaround time. All these flights will carry a loadmaster and a flying engineer, too. Why there is always an aircraft engineer on these flights, you can find out here.

Flight time limitations for the crews also need to be duly observed in the planning process, as do the legally stipulated rest hours at the destination. On the layover front, our security and hotel management units also have to be consulted over the hotel and crew ground transport arrangements – especially for destinations that SWISS and Edelweiss (or other Lufthansa Group airlines) don’t usually serve, but also for more familiar destinations if the regular crew hotel can’t be used. And care must also be taken to ensure that catering will be available and is duly ordered for the inbound repatriation flight.

Vital belly freighters

With airlines’ flight operations drastically reduced all over the world, air cargo rates have rocketed. And this has made it attractive to use the hold or “belly” capacity of passenger aircraft to perform cargo-only flights. Our focus with these operations is on bringing medical supplies and medical equipment to Switzerland, largely in collaboration with public institutions. But we are also working with further partners to transport goods from Switzerland to China, to keep global supply chains going and support the Swiss export sector. For a few weeks now, cargo has been transported not only in the regular cargo hold, but also in the cabin. You can find out more about this here. These cargo-only flights are primarily being operated with our SWISS Airbus A340s and Boeing 777s.

Our SWISS aircraft have already been used to operate cargo-only flights to Zurich and Geneva from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. And these will be followed by further such flights on behalf of private and government clients.

We would like to say a big thank-you to all the crew members who operate these special flights and, of course, to everyone behind the scenes whose tireless efforts and commitment help to bring people home, transport urgently needed medical supplies and keep Switzerland linked with the world. Their work and dedication are sure to continue to be needed in the weeks ahead.