The high drama of the hijacking of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 702 ended without bloodshed. After the plane landed in Geneva, Swiss authorities took the hijacker into custody, and all 202 passengers and crew departed the plane unharmed.
Although everyone was thankful for the outcome, it did cause more than a few red faces throughout Switzerland’s government. The airliner had been escorted through Swiss air space by French and Italian military aircraft because the hijacker did not have the common courtesy to schedule the incident during regular business hours.
Switzerland has been famous for its neutrality and so guarded against elevating any of its regions above another that it doesn’t even have a capital city. There was one other peculiarity about the nation that largely escaped notice before the Ethiopian Airlines hijacking: the Swiss Air Force only flew from 8:00 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with noon to 1:30 off for lunch.
On February 17, 2014, When Flight 702 entered Swiss air space, frantic calls went out to alert the country’s air defenses. Rather than sending planes, a Swiss Air Force spokesperson said, “Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend. It’s a question of budget and staffing.” Instead, hijacked plane was escorted by Italian Eurofighter and French Mirage fighter jets. By prior agreement with France and Italy, they have authority to enter Swiss air space to escort suspicious flights, but they do not have authorization to shoot down any aircraft that might be a threat.
Rather than continue to be the laughingstock of the air defense community, Switzerland took immediate steps to improve its air readiness. In 2019 — five years after the hijacking incident — Switzerland enhanced its air defense by increasing its hours of operation from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Finally, on December 31, 2020, the Swiss Air Force moved to 24/7 standby status. Two F/A-18 fighter jets will be on round-the-clock standby, fully armed, and capable of deployment within fifteen minutes. The aircraft and pilots, known as the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), are based in Payerne military airbase in western Switzerland.
The improvement in air defense comes at a cost. It required the creation of about 100 additional positions and will cost about $34 million per year.
There is no official word on whether there is additional compensation for any missed lunches.