Swiss Air Force at ready, but only in office hours

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 9:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 9:58pm

Want to invade Switzerland? Just make sure you strike outside office hours.

When an Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise aircraft carrying 202 passengers entered Swiss airspace on Monday after being hijacked by the co-pilot en route to Rome, Switzerland's Air Force remained on the ground.

That's because the incident occurred outside normal office hours. Instead, French and Italian fighter jets escorted the Boeing 767 to a safe landing in Geneva.

"You have a budget and you have to prioritise," said Swiss Air Force spokesman Juerg Nussbaum. While Switzerland monitors airspace around the clock, intervention occurs only during routine business hours starting at 8am, he said.

The Ethiopian plane, which originated in Addis Ababa, landed in Geneva shortly after 6am and the co-pilot gave himself up to police after sliding down a rope from the cockpit window. Authorities briefly closed the airport, and by early afternoon it had resumed normal service.

As it passed through Egyptian airspace, the Ethiopian carrier flashed a hijacking code. That alerted Italian officials, who scrambled Eurofighter aircraft. Later, two French Mirage 2000s escorted the airliner to Geneva. Both Italy and France have permission to enter Swiss airspace.

Swiss voters will soon get a chance to decide whether to help the Air Force secure the Alpine skies with more modern fighter jets. On May 18, the country will vote whether to buy 22 Saab AB Gripen jets in a deal worth US$3.47 billion.

Monday wasn't the first time Switzerland's Air Force has relied on outside help. Austria deployed Eurofighter Typhoons to secure the airspace of the World Economic Forum in Davos last month and during the 2008 European Football Championship in Austria and Switzerland.

Nussbaum said the Swiss would review their policies to be able to deploy jets more spontaneously. "We plan to increase Air Force staff for interventions in the future," he said.

Swiss officials say that the Ethiopian co-pilot is unlikely to receive asylum and that he faces up to 20 years in prison.