“The Swiss aren’t indifferent to what happens to Swiss”

Swiss CEO Thomas Klühr is delighted that guests still have an emotional bond with Swiss International Air Lines. In future, he wants to introduce personalised offers that correspond much more precisely to their needs – even as the procedures behind the curtains become more standardised. Digitalisation is sure to be of help to him in this balancing act.

Text: Roberto Stefàno | Photos: Andreas Zimmermann | Magazine: Customer focus – January 2019

There’s a strong emotional bond people in this country have with Swiss. Where does that come from?

Airlines generally arouse emotions because they create a bridge to people’s dreams of foreign shores. And as Switzerland’s home carrier, Swiss is the connection to the world for many people here. What I find particularly striking, though, is that – no matter where I go – folks in Switzerland always know someone who has worked for Swiss or its predecessor, Swissair. That naturally strengthens the emotional bond.

How important is this solidarity to you?

It pleases me greatly. The Swiss aren’t indifferent to what happens to Swiss. Equally spoken, we at Swiss have a responsibility; we’re brand ambassadors for Switzerland, and that can be quite demanding.

“Our challenge is to meet the specific needs of our customers and at the same time, out of efficiency considerations, strive for standardisation.”

Does this bond suffer in any way from the fact that Swiss belongs to the Lufthansa Group?

We must always make it clear to people how firmly anchored we are in Switzerland. What many don’t know: 70 per cent of our employees have a Swiss passport; 90 per cent work in Switzerland. The majority of our suppliers are local companies. We also draw up our flight schedule according to the needs of the local population. I’d venture the guess that there are only very few companies as Swiss as we are – and Lufthansa has no interest in changing a winning team.

Thomas Klühr, 56, has been CEO of Swiss International Air Lines since February 2016. The aviation specialist from Nuremberg joined Lufthansa in 1990 and held various positions with this parent company of Swiss, most recently as Chief of the Lufthansa Hub in Munich. Klühr studied business administration at the University of Erlangen. He is married and the father of two grown-up children.

You fly to over 100 destinations in 43 countries. What are the differences between the passengers that come from and fly to different countries?

For one, the customer groups are becoming increasingly similar. But on the other hand, the need for personalised offers is increasing – worldwide, even in Switzerland. We try our very best to fulfil this desire, regardless of cultural differences.

“Despite all the adventurous digital possibilities, people’s desire or necessity to travel will still be there.”

What do you mean when you talk of personalised offers?

Customers these days use several different channels when preparing their trips. They take advantage of everything from online platforms, to social media, to the traditional travel agency as the means for getting in touch with us. We have to deal with these in a differentiated way. The flight itself can also be individualised: some travellers have no choice but to fly with luggage, others prefer not to. The same applies to meals, entertainment and much more. Our challenge is to meet the specific needs of our customers and at the same time, out of efficiency considerations, strive for standardisation.

What does it take to keep passengers satisfied on board?

The customer must feel comfortable and be able to unwind. Our guests use the time on board to catch a movie, read e-mails or simply be unavailable for a few hours. A good entertainment programme and tasty meals are musts. And it’s also important to have a crew who know how to respond to the individual passengers.

Where do you see the greatest potential for optimisations?

During phases like last summer – if you recall, European airspace was overloaded and the ground infrastructure had practically reached its limits – we need to take even greater care of our customers and inform them of irregularities.

Swiss International Air Lines, or Swiss for short, is Switzerland’s flagbearer in the sky, with operative headquarters in Kloten. From airports in Zurich, Geneva and Lugano, it serves over 100 destinations in 43 countries across the globe with a fleet of 90 aircraft. Each year, some 17 million passengers fly with Swiss, a company that has been a subsidiary of the Lufthansa Group since 2005 and is a member of the Star Alliance network.

In 2017, Swiss, with its more than 8,800 employees, generated revenues of close to CHF 5 billion.


How are you preparing for the summer of 2019?

We’re trying to bring relief through the deployment of additional reserves in terms of aircraft and crews, but also by planning differently those routes that are susceptible to delays. Moreover, we’ll improve the processes both on board and on the ground. Our procedures are very customer-friendly, but they frequently lead to delays in boarding. In the event of disruptions, we have to be in a position already at an early stage to inform our guests about connecting flights and alternatives. Basically, the infrastructure at airports – here in Zurich as well – needs to be expanded even further in order to avoid gridlocks.

How important is it for Swiss to take care of its guests on the ground?

It’s the way for us to stand out from the crowd of our competitors, especially on short-haul flights. In Zurich, I’m very satisfied with where we stand at the moment. This past year, we completely renovated our lounges in Dock A. The new SWISS First Lounge A now offers our top customers a dedicated security control area. Another little amenity: a coat-check option for the duration of their journey to warmer climes. And since late last year, our Terminal 1 check-in area has been radiating in new splendour and exemplifying our brand values more strikingly than ever before.

Swiss recently invested in new aircraft. To what extent was the customer in mind here?

As we were the first airline in the world to put Bombardier’s C Series (now Airbus) into service, there was very close cooperation between the manufacturer, our technicians and our pilots right from the start. The customer perspective was of great importance in the development of the aircraft. This can be seen, for example, in the capacious luggage racks, large windows and roomy cabin.

How has customer behaviour changed in the last 15 years?

Certainly the most important change can be seen in the way customers prepare their trip. Today, this is accomplished digitally and regardless of location. We need to adjust more adeptly to this change.

Is this having an effect on your organisation?

We’re becoming even more digital. For example, all cabin personnel now have tablets that can be used to call up passenger information, products or duty schedules at any time. The rapid growth in digitalisation is also having a major impact on aircraft maintenance. Today, the planes are constantly sending data, which we then evaluate in order to identify early on when it will become necessary to replace a part. In order to make better use of synergies within the Group and to facilitate the transfer of know-how, we’ve also introduced a matrix organisation.

Taking a look at the future: which needs and behavioural patterns will characterise airline customers ten years from now?

The need for mobility will almost certainly grow, this because – despite all the adventurous digital possibilities – people’s desire or necessity to travel will still be there. This of course is good news for us as an airline. However, we’ll need to focus even more closely on the specific concerns of our customers – all the while as we attempt behind the scenes to standardise certain processes. Given the overburdened airport infrastructure in Europe, we want to be better equipped to deal with irregularities before they actually occur, and otherwise avoid annoying disturbances. Nonetheless, it’s essential that investments be made 
in the physical infrastructure. Unfortunately, that’s not happening in Europe right now.

How will the airline business of the future look?

In Europe, I expect to see further consolidation within the industry. Ultimately, no more than five major players are likely to survive. The Lufthansa Group – and with it, Swiss – will play a leading role. I also place great hope in data analysis as a means for predicting future trends. One way or the other, the data dimension will gain in importance for airlines as they strive to resolve the contradiction between personalisation and standardisation. On the other hand, the trend is towards heightened data protection. Those who offer the best solutions to this inherent conflict will be the ones who come out on top.

When will we be flying for the first time in a pilotless plane?

That’s likely to take even longer. Today, the majority of customers have no desire whatsoever to board an aircraft that will fly at close to supersonic speed with no one at the helm. Moreover, thousands of new aircraft are currently being delivered with pilot-tailored cockpits. Those planes will be in the air for at least another 20 years.

But technologically, that would be possible, right?

In principle, yes. But things happen on board that don’t necessarily conform with the norm. And then we’re all happy when a real live person is there to deal with the situation.

Thomas Klühr
Brief questions – short answers

How do you achieve your work-life balance?
Suffice it to say that my work-life balance is in need of improvement – yet I’m convinced that achieving that balance over a one-week or even a one-month period is hardly possible in my position. Nonetheless, I consciously plan any available downtime to gain at least some semblance of work-life balance.

Your favourite app?

Your private highlight in recent months?
My daughter completed her master’s degree and started her work as a teacher. This is a special moment for us as par- ents, even though we didn’t play much of a role in that achievement. I’m very happy for her.

Your most valuable tip for business life?
You need to stay authentic, do what you enjoy, and not constantly reinvent yourself out of the belief that people expect it of you.

What do you wish for yourself in the years ahead?
Health, for me and my family. People often only comprehend this once they’re ill and everything else suddenly takes a back seat. Politically, I hope we don’t forget what made Europe and Switzerland great. We need to stand up and make sure that the nationalist ideology being propagated in Europe these days doesn’t take root. I believe that this is a vital task.

Your favourite meal?
Ham and noodle casserole.