Monday, January 19, 2015

Flying high

Sion, a Swiss air force base is crammed with the corporate jets and helicopters of the super-rich. Sion’s private-plane operations have surged because its location is well away from prying eyes a guaranteed lure for the publicity-shy oligarch.

“We keep quiet and that’s why they come,” Bernard Karrer, who runs the airport, said in an interview. “You’re through customs and immigration in three minutes. The helicopter is waiting and you go. That’s our asset.” He went on to say “Our wealthy clients have their chalets and their five- star hotels and they are still going to come here. There won’t be a dramatic impact.” Sion has no inbound charter flights so the elite are not exposed to the wider tourist market and the common herd.

Sion’s clientele are unlikely to be put off by yesterday’s surge in the Swiss franc after the scrapping of a cap on the euro exchange rate, with private-jet users largely immune to concerns about even a 10 percent rise in costs especially at a time of plummeting aviation-fuel prices. In Sion, 80 million francs ($89 million) of private investment at what remains a publicly owned facility used by the Swiss military has created state-of-the-art facilities. Arriving guests walk only 20 meters (65 feet) from their plane to the border control, while a private-jet terminal opened in 2013 by TAG Aviation Holding SA boasts three VIP salons, a pilot lounge and 12,000 square meters of aircraft parking. That’s ample room for even the biggest Boeing luxury business jets.  Sion is unique in giving jets of Saudi princes and Russian oligarchs priority over the air force’s Northrop Grumman F-5E Tigers, whose pilots train there.

Sion is too far west to serve as an entry point for the company executives and politicians who will flock to Davos in the far southeast of Switzerland, though a new route to the World Economic Forum has been opened up via Duebendorf military base near Zurich, which has room for 40 private jets and is a one-hour helicopter ride from the mountain town.

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