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Nestled between the 13,000-foot peaks of southern Switzerland is a billionaire’s toy-box masquerading as an aircraft hangar.
In the winter months the building at Sion air force base becomes rammed with the corporate jets and helicopters of the super-rich, lured there by the promise of a mere 50-minute car journey to some of Europe’s most exclusive ski slopes.
Sion’s private-plane operations have surged in the past five years as wealthy winter-sports enthusiasts throng Swiss resorts that were left half-empty during the financial crisis. A flight to the sleepy Alpine town followed by a short car or chopper journey shaves hours off the trip from Zurich or Geneva, while its location away from prying eyes and Switzerland’s reputation for discretion helps lure the publicity-shy.
“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.”
Karrer predicts a record number of private-jet movements at Sion this winter, led by English and German visitors who use the airport as a base for trips to resorts such as Zermatt, with its views of the Matterhorn, and Gstaad, dubbed “the place to be” by Time magazine in the 1960s, when regular visitors included actresses Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.
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, Karrer said, especially at a time of plummeting aviation-fuel prices.
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 next week, 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. Most delegates have historically traveled to Davos by car or train.
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.
For the airport’s owners, the City of Sion and the Canton of Valais, the influx of some of the world’s wealthiest people has provided a much-needed windfall. With an unemployment rate almost twice the national average, Sion has come to rely on the construction and support jobs that the airport provides.
The town also benefits from contacts developed with potential investors and business people who pass through the airport on their way to the piste, its mayor Marcel Maurer said.
Landing at Sion can halve the 1 hour 50 minute car journey from Geneva to Verbier in the Four Valleys ski area, while Gstaad, now favored by Madonna and Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, is 15 minutes by helicopter.
The influx of wealthy skiers helped Sion boost plane movements 4.2 percent in 2014, almost tripling the activity of a decade ago, with business-jet flights up almost 13 percent and surpassing 5,000 for the first time. The growth rates should spur an earnings recovery over the next few years at an airport unprofitable since Karrer became director in 2004, he said.
Space to Grow
While anything approaching a 1:1 franc-euro exchange rate would be “hard” for the wider Swiss economy, Karrer said it won’t deter Sion’s unique brand of traveler, even though they’ll face an effective increase in airport charges.
“Our wealthy clients have their chalets and their five- star hotels and they are still going to come here,” he said. “There won’t be a dramatic impact.” Sion has no inbound charter flights so isn’t exposed to the wider tourist market.
A shortage of space elsewhere is also helping to feed the skiing elite through the town of 33,000 people, where there’s ample room for even the biggest Boeing business jets — luxury aircraft based on regular airliners — to park for a week.
In Geneva, Europe’s second-busiest private-jet hub after Paris Le Bourget, space is already at such a premium that “it’s hard to know where to park all those aircraft,” Robert Deillon, the airport’s chief executive, said in an interview.
While one of four main Swiss air bases, 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, and Boeing F/A 18 Hornets, which visit for exercises.
The likely exit of the military after a referendum vote last year against buying the Saab AB Gripen warplane to replace the F-5s will leave even more scope for private-jet expansion as Sion’s fighter-pilot school faces closure and the air force leaves completely at some point after 2020, according to Karrer.
Capping Sion’s year was a late boost from Russian skiers, who Karrer said bolstered jet numbers during the 12-day Christmas and New Year holiday, which ended last weekend.
“The Russian holidays are fantastic for us,” Karrer said. “Traffic was better than expected. Mr Putin seems to have said he doesn’t want Russians to go to Europe, but we are not the European Union. We still have very good relations.”
This article was written by Andy Hoffman and Patrick Winters from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.