Jet Aviation – Swiss style and workmanship

Basel, Switzerland

When you are used to the sardine-can economy class cabins of conventional airliners, stepping through the door of a VIP-configured Boeing 747-400 takes you aback. Jet Aviation’s Basel completion centre is half way through converting a 747 from a giant bus designed to carry more than 400 passengers to a flying palace for a Middle Eastern royal family.

It is the second 747-400 the Swiss-based company has converted (the first was delivered four years ago) and, although the example sitting in the hangar looks like any aircraft in mid-completion – electrical components hanging from the ceiling and polythene and cardboard everywhere – you can already see the trappings of opulence in the cabin forward of the door and staircase, where the luxury carpet has been laid and a 2m-diameter hole made in the ceiling for a giant indented light. The technicians bustle about in the cabin in their socks, despite the fact that thick industrial polythene covers the deep, blue carpet.

I was in Basel to look around Jet Aviation’s large business jet completion operation there. The company prides itself on the fact that it outsources very little – it has what it modestly calls a “woodshop” to make the cabinets and fittings, and upholstery is hand-stitched. Aircraft are painted with all the attention to detail of Michelangelo in the Sistene Chapel. Wages in Switzerland are among the highest in Europe, but Dietmar Gasper, manager of customer services, says it would not make sense to use companies in, say, the Czech Republic or Poland to do this very labour-intensive work. It’s a customer-driven market, he says, with very fussy clients paying large amounts to have their every demand met at extremely short notice. You need constant, real-time quality control. Get it wrong – to the extent of some less than perfect stitching on a seat – and you lose not just that customer but very possibly others as well. “It’s a niche market where word of mouth, rather than marketing, determines where your business comes from,” he says. “It doesn’t take much to establish a bad reputation.”

Basel nestles in a corner of Switzerland, right on the border of France and Germany and the company draws in workers from all three countries and beyond. It’s a cosmopolitan mix: colleagues greet eachother variously with “salut”, “guten tag” and “hello”. They tend to stay a long time as it’s a highly-specialist business. The Jet Aviation site hugs the border with France. The frontier fence runs around its perimeter and the Basel-Mulhouse airport terminal next door is actually on French soil but with a dedicated road for Swiss passengers through to Swiss territory. Space is at a premium but Jet Aviation obviously has influence: when the company needed land for a new woodshop, the border fence was moved to enclose the only property available within Switzerland.

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