My earliest memories of the Zurich airport date back to the mid 1980's. I remember standing on the visitor's terrace and waving at departing Swissair machines.
In the years since, Swissair has been replaced by Swiss, but my fascination for airports and the aviation business has not vanished. Needless to say, it was a big deal to be invited for an exclusive tour of the Swiss International Air Lines operations center at ZRH airport.
Equipped with visitor badges, we were fast tracked through the "Crew & Staff" gate at the security checkpoint. Little did we know that secret doors and elevators would lead us away from common passenger areas to reveal what is going on behind the scenes...
"Much of what I do is about managing the gaps between our passengers' expectations and what we can physically deliver," says Hannah, the Swiss station manager on duty. In other words, her job is to accommodate each passenger within the realm of what is possible.
As one of only a handful of employees Swiss maintains at the airport (most others are contractors from Swissport), Hannah has seen it all: "I can tell whether a passenger is really running late, or whether they simply missed their connection due to bad time management."
Regardless of the situation at hand, Hannah's office is the airport, and her customers are the passengers of Swiss. "With the Zürich airport being a hub, two thirds of all passengers will need to catch a connecting flight. Many factors come into play when a connection is missed, such as flight restrictions due to inclement weather, capacity on other airlines, the booking class of the ticket, or simply the speed at which luggage can be handled."
ZRH Airport Steering Center
Hannah is not alone in ensuring that passengers have a smooth experience. As we enter the steering center for Zürich's airport - just one floor below the iconic control tower - we quickly realize that running an airline is a team effort.
There are logistics specialists for baggage handling, airplane cleaning, catering and for running of the terminal shuttle. Others are tasked with monitoring passenger flow within the airport - opening lanes whenever needed.
In my eyes, one of the most fascinating jobs is that of a Hub Controller. To a novice, it appears that this function is tasked with juggling ten games of Tetris - at once! Keeping a close eye on arrival and departure times of all 91 planes in the Swiss fleet, this specialist has to make minute-by-minute decisions on whether to cancel, delay or swap planes in order to keep on schedule.
When asked about what keeps him up at night, André answered: "The good thing about my job is that by the end of the day, all cows need to be in the right stable, and no work is put off."
So during the mandated off-hours between 11:00 PM and 6:00 AM, this specialist can rest assured that the next day, his fleet is ready to work off some 420 flights from anew!
Our tour wraps up at the Swiss operations center. Several dozen uniformed pilots and co-pilots are grouped at briefing tables, planning their next flights. Next door, an expert team of metrologists is consulting pilots on weather conditions, which in turn are influencing the flight route and (to our surprise) the time when meals are to be served.
Finally, a desk with sign-in sheets is for flight attendants to request assignments for their flights. Some might prefer working in the galley, while others would prefer working the aisles.
Kristina, a flight attendant at Swiss, likes this flexibility:
"At the beginning of a day, I usually don't know in which position I'm going to work: Am I the one organizing the galley? Or the one working in the aisle, being in constant contact with passengers - from boarding to the end of the flight?"
Have you ever stopped and wondered how all these planes get cleaned, replenished and pushed back onto the runway within a mere 40 minutes? Probably not - and that's quite OK. It is because of a tremendous amount of experience (and needed pragmatism during exceptional situations) that this team can pull off this monumental task without anyone noticing it!