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In one of the most unusual exercises in airline branding, the long-gone Swissair name has re-emerged - not on Airbus or Boeing jets but on Cirrus SR22s operated by a tiny air taxi start-up in Long Island, New York.

Seventy-year-old Swissair collapsed in the downturn that followed 11 September 2001, but the dormant brand was acquired last year by Swiss International Air Lines, which took over as the country's flag carrier in 2002.

Privately owned Hopscotch Air, which operates one SR22 and plans to acquire three more in the next few months, has licensed the trademark from Swiss. Its aircraft will carry the Swissair name on their tails, with the larger Hopscotch livery on the fuselage.

RELATIVE OBSCURITY

So how did one of Europe's leading airlines end up choosing a fledgling private charter company on the other side of the Atlantic for the relaunch of an international aviation brand unused for almost a decade? The key was, in fact, Hopscotch's relative obscurity. Swiss, now Lufthansa-owned, wanted to explore ways of "reintroducing the brand on a limited level", says Hopscotch president Andrew Schmertz. "They came to us."

hopscotch air sr22, hopscotch air
 © Hopscotch Air
Twist in the tail: Swissair's subtle branding

Although Schmertz will not reveal financial details, he says the two companies are in discussions to widen the relationship, possibly with Swiss marketing the Hopscotch service to its premium customers flying into New York. "The biggest advantage for us is the relationship with Swiss," he adds.

For its part, Swiss says the agreement is designed to "help preserve the heritage of the iconic Swissair brand" and a preventative measure to stop other airlines using the name. However, the carrier denies it is a "relaunch" of Swissair. Instead, it is a "measure to keep the brand alive as we do not plan to use the trademark Swissair for our own commercial flight services". An aviation sports club in Switzerland is also allowed to use the Swissair brand for the same reason.

Hopscotch was founded in 2006 by three private investors, part of a wave of air taxi ventures set up to exploit the operating advantages offered by very light jets and modern pistons.

The hoped-for on-demand air taxi revolution never happened and instead left a string of high-profile casualties such as Eclipse 500 pioneer DayJet and SR22 operator SATSair. However, a number of smaller outfits have survived on a modest basis, mostly in large metropolitan regions such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Hopscotch finally began operations early this year with a single SR22. It is leasing a second and two more will arrive next year. It operates on-demand charter from airports around New York, with its market split between leisure - mostly those en route to vacation homes in Cape Cod and other resorts - and executives travelling to meetings in towns hard to reach by airline.

Business has been brisk, with some passengers having switched in the downturn from high-end jets, says Schmertz. "We hear a people saying: 'I don't need to take the [Gulfstream] GIV to Nantucket.'" However, there is evidence of the SR22 operator "changing the paradigm" of private travel, he says. Half of Hopscotch's first-time fliers have never chartered an aircraft.

Operating the four-seat single piston SR22, he adds, is "the best model" for an air taxi operator. Despite operating restrictions and limitations of space - passengers have to clamber into their seats via the wing - its economics give it a big advantage over very light jets, says Schmertz.

CASHFLOW

Although it had an enviable reputation for service, Swissair hit cashflow problems brought on by the sudden decline in traffic at the end of 2001. It followed an expansion and borrowing spree in the 1990s that saw it acquire stakes in several airlines and launch several spin-off businesses. Swissair's demise shocked a nation used to the probity of its institutions and financial acumen of its leading businessmen.

Whether the Swissair brand still carries a cachet or if passengers climbing into the cramped cabin of Hopscotch's SR22s will be simply confused with the subtle link to a defunct airline remains to be seen.

However, Schmertz - a former broadcasting consultant - is convinced the association with the Swissair brand can only serve to promote his low-cost air taxi services to New York's private aviation virgins.