Report / The Alps
When snow falls, the globally mobile head to the mountains – preferably by plane – but not every pilot has the stomach for the most-demanding runways in Europe. We hop to the Alps’ top ski locations to meet the airline and airport staff who keep the skiers in the skies.
It all began with a wager held by St Moritz hotelier Johannes Badrutt some 150 years ago. He invited his remaining summer guests to return to the Engadin valley over Christmas and promised to cover their travel costs if they weren’t convinced of the Alpine town’s charms in the winter season. Suffice to say, his guests stayed until Easter and with that the winter resort was born. St Moritz became such a desired destination among snow-sports enthusiasts that its first airfield, located in neighbouring Samedan, opened in December 1919.
A few years later, however, it was claimed by the military as part of the Swiss National Redoubt. This defensive plan, conceived in the late 19th century, demarcated the Alps as a refuge for the Swiss army in case of a foreign invasion and gained significance during the Second World War.
As one country after the next fell to the German troops, Switzerland sought to boost its defences and established more airfields in the protected valleys of the Alps. One of these was built in the chalet-dotted municipality of Saanen, and it was named after the local town of Gstaad, which had also flourished as a winter resort. Until 1946, Gstaad Airport was reserved for the military. Today, only a lonely watchtower protruding ominously from the mountainside acts as a reminder of that era.
“Now it’s used to host fondue evenings,” says Marc Steiner, ceo of Gstaad Airport, as he squints up at the tower. Steiner started his career as a Lufthansa pilot and only took over as ceo in November last year. This summer he oversaw the reopening of the revamped airport, designed by Jaggi Architektur & Innenarchitektur. The renovations, needed at the time to comply with updated security measures, cost chf31m (€27m) and transformed the run-down airport into a world-class gateway.
“We need double the staff to adapt to the new infrastructure. We have a lounge with a bar but no one to serve coffee. I’m basically starting from zero but it’s exciting. I want to put together a motivated team; with the right people the airport will run like a breeze,” he says, stepping out of the brand-new hangars and onto the airfield. “It’s my baby now and I’ll get it to walk.”
In the winter, the rolling mountains swaddling the valley are covered in snow. Not so on this summer day. Opposite the airport, horses are warming up for the annual polo cup and Steiner is pretty relaxed. “We live in a place others come to spend their holidays,” he says. Throughout the year, the airport registers some 6,000 aircraft movements, with the highest level of traffic in the winter. Today, only a few planes are scheduled to pass through Gstaad. One of them is a Pilatus pc-12 with a toothy grin.
“Some people like to call it The Shark,” says Benjamin Carenton, pilot of the private aircraft. He’s wearing Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses (as it turns out most pilots do) and has a subtle French accent. “Days like this are good; we have a clear runway. It’s a purely visual airport so we have to be able to see the ground from the valley over there in order to land.”
Alpine airports such as Gstaad, Engadin and Courchevel in neighbouring France are not equipped with instrument approach systems, which would allow pilots to navigate their descent with gps, and require pilots to depend on their sight. “The most difficult landings in Gstaad happen when it’s windy and there’s snow on the runway,” says Carenton.
Alpine resort towns are playgrounds for the rich and famous so it comes as no surprise when a black Mercedes rolls in and drops off Monegasque royal Andrea Casiraghi and his family. “I fly them around for family dinners,” says Carenton. “They’re having a big family meeting in Champagne.” With those words Carenton turns on his heels and helps the family, plus their two Boston terriers, on board. As the engine starts, Steiner rolls out onto the airfield on his bike in a neon vest to direct the jet onto the runway.
“You may take off at your own discretion,” transmits Daphné Waser as the plane picks up speed. She is Steiner’s only colleague today. As the plane lifts off, she says: “Merci pour la visite et un bon retour.” With that, The Shark is in the air and Carenton must dodge paragliders circling above Gstaad; otherwise the skies are clear. The runway, on the other hand, is not always so.
Just this morning, Steiner saved the day by jumping into a firetruck, sirens blaring; not to put out a fire but to chase a parked car off the runway as a plane was approaching. “This happens all the time,” says Steiner, who’s afraid that one day he won’t be there in time. “They’re not aware of the danger.”
The danger is real at Engadin Airport, too. “In the wintertime we’ve had people mistake the runway for a ski piste,” says Christian Gorfer, chief financial officer of Engadin Airport, which opened on the old military airfield of Samedan near St Moritz in 1938. The greatest challenge for small Alpine airports, however, is the weather. “It’s one of the biggest factors,” says Duri Joos, pilot and founder of Air Corviglia. “The weather is very changeable in the mountains. It’s sunny one hour and rainy the next. Often you can’t see the airfield until you’ve reached the valley [and some pilots are known to have gotten lost].”
Grey clouds can be seen rolling in from St Moritz and reports say a thunderstorm is on the cards; it’s time to get going. Joos swiftly slides on his aviators and steps up to the gleaming metallic blue pc-12 with the company’s logo of a flying Pegasus-Capricorn on the tail. He learned to fly at this airport but when the weather turns for the worse, even the most trained pilot has to land elsewhere.
Roman Parli, team leader of the ground services crew, is there to direct Joos to the runway. In the winter Parli can be found shovelling snow; in the summer he dashes around on his pushback tug and runs fire-fighting exercises (most staff at Engadin Airport is also a certified fireman). “You should see the airport in the wintertime, that’s our high season,” Parli says, putting in his earplugs. “It’s going to get loud.” A thunderous echo builds in the valley as Joos takes off. Then it’s silent again.
In order to better cope with the demand at Engadin Airport, particularly over Christmas and New Year, a large-scale revamp is in the works. Construction of the new airport, designed by Hosoya Schaefer Architects and Blarer & Reber Architekten, is scheduled for 2021 with the terminal to be completed by 2023. Currently the airport sees around 15,000 aircraft movements a year; the renovation, paired with a global navigation satellite system (to limit weather dependency), would accommodate 20 per cent more. Despite being excited about the plans, there is some reservation. “We’ve been wanting to expand the airport since 2007,” says Gorfer. “That’s why we’re working out of containers.” Nonetheless, he’s optimistic that this time around the construction will go ahead as planned.
Currently even the kitchen, which prepares everything from lobster to sushi for its high-class private-jet clientele, is housed inside a container. The envisioned modern glass, steel and wood structure would set the right tone for its clients, many of whom arrive on the tarmac in limos, wrapped in thick fur coats in the winter.
When Europe’s high society isn’t skiing in St Moritz, they’re to be found in the mountains of Courchevel, France’s first purpose-built ski resort. It’s home to the highest elevated tarmac runway in Europe, nestled in the French Alps at 2,010 metres above sea level. Built as late as 1961, the so-called altiport (it’s only accessible for smaller aircraft) is renowned for having one of the shortest airstrips in the world, measuring only 537 metres and angled at a gradient of 18.66 per cent to slow planes down upon landing. Only those with a special “Qualification of Sight” licence are permitted to touch down here, which fewer than 100 pilots in the world possess.
Christophe Chapuis, pilot and CEO of Alpine Airlines, flies a Pilatus pc-6 Porter. According to him, “Mountain flights or landings are not dangerous. Special training is required but it’s like freeride skiing or mountain hiking. It has to be done with skill and attention.” Unlike in the winter, when the hilly runway can freeze over and make take-off and landing impossible, today’s weather couldn’t be better and herds of cows are roaming the green pastures.
“When it’s not possible to land, planes are diverted to Albertville, Chambéry, Annecy and other airports,” says Jean-François Deltour, who’s been the airport’s manager since 2015, overseeing 8,000 aircraft movements a year. In the summer months he only employs two staff members whereas in the winter that number almost quintuples – the reason being that the altiport is located at the heart of the ski resort. You can see the slopes from the runway and the glistening snow-covered peaks of Mont Blanc in the distance. “My plan for the next five years is to establish an airport business terminal and a heliport extension,” says Deltour, adding that it’s not a rare occurrence for skiers to drink too much in the mountain cabin and have to be airlifted down.
Back at Engadin Airport, Gorfer is surveying the sky. Menacing clouds are gathering above the airport and the first raindrops are falling to the ground. The horses in the neighbouring paddock start galloping wildly as the wind begins to pick up. Joos is expected to return soon but if the clouds don’t dissipate he’ll be forced to land in Zürich instead.
When all goes to plan, the beauty of arriving at a small Alpine airport such as Engadin, Gstaad and Courchevel, particularly in winter, is that you can strap on your skis as soon as you step out of the plane and head straight to the slopes. “We have one gentleman who gets his housekeeper to deliver his cross-country skis to the jet so that he can ski home from the airfield,” says Gorfer. “That’s how it’s done.”