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Why flights between Geneva and Zurich are so controversial

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Why flights between Geneva and Zurich are so controversial
The air shuttle between Zurich and Geneva is controversial. Photo: Nino Steffen on Unsplash

Despite continued complaints that flights between the country’s two largest cities are bad for the environment and should be completely replaced by a train service, SWISS airline has no plans to give up this route.

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While many of SWISS’ international flights depart directly from Geneva — including long-haul ones like the nonstop service to New York’s JFK airport — most require passengers to change planes in Zurich.

The two-way air shuttle service, which operates on average eight times a day, is intended for passengers from the French-speaking part of the country who are making a connection to international flights in Zurich.

“We want to optimally connect French-speaking Switzerland to our network,” SWISS' head Dieter Vranckx said in an interview published on Easter Sunday.

Though this may sound reasonable and logical, the flight has been at the centre of heated debates in Switzerland for a long time.

What is the controversy about?

Environmentalists have been pointing out that the 30-minute flight requires three times more energy than the train, and releases 150 times more CO2.

They argue that  passengers should travel the 280 km between the two hubs by train, which takes roughly three hours — less, if they board the train in ‘intermediate’ cities like Lausanne.

In fact, several years ago, Green MPs filed a motion in the parliament calling for SWISS to abandon these domestic flights in favour of train service — “a definite advantage for the population because of its contribution to climate protection,” the party claimed.

The Federal Council countered, however, that such a drastic move would be detrimental to Switzerland’s travel industry.

If flights between Geneva to Zurich were to be banned, “it is a safe bet that connecting passengers would not resort to the train but would book flights via other international hubs, such as Frankfurt, London, Paris, or Amsterdam,” the government said. 

The issue is still...up in the air.

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Is train really a viable option to replace the plane on this route?

The good news that both airports (Geneva’s code is GVA and Zurich’s ZRH) have train stations, so this is a definite plus for those who choose rail over air.

This is convenient particularly for people who live in, or in proximity to, these two cities, as it means they can take public transportation, instead of car, all the way to the  airport.

However, as many have pointed out, taking a train from Geneva to Zurich airport (and vice-versa) is not as beneficial for everyone.

Their main arguments are time and cost.

Let’s look at the time first.

The train ride from Geneva to Zurich takes three hours. The flight itself is 30 minutes, but it is 50 minutes if taxi time on the runway is added at both ends.

Add to that the time it takes to get to the airport, check in your luggage, and go through security — all of which is variable but could take anywhere from one to two hours.

So, in the best-case scenario, the flight time beats the train, but under less positive circumstances (such as long queues at check-in and security), the train wins.

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What about the price of the ticket?

A half-fare train ticket costs 48 francs one way, though you could pay less if there are super-saver tickets available. If you don’t have a half-fare card, you will pay roughly 100 francs for round-trip the ticket.

If you opt to fly from Geneva to Zurich, a one-way fare, depending on the time of day, starts at about 200 francs and goes up from there. Clearly, it is more expensive to fly.

However, this price applies only if you are flying to Zurich but don’t have a connecting international ticket — in other words, if Zurich is your final destination and not a transit point.

Most travellers, however, don’t fly to Zurich but via Zurich.

Here’s an example: If you fly from Geneva to Washington DC with SWISS in mid-May, via Zurich (no direct flight from Geneva are available), your round-trip economy class ticket will cost 1,527 francs.

If you fly the same route from and to Zurich, the round-trip fare is 1,451 francs, so the extra charge for the Geneva-Zurich-Geneva leg is 76 francs — 20 francs less than the 96-franc half-price two-way train ticket between the two hubs, and far cheaper than a train ticket that doesn’t benefit from half-fare.

Keep in mind, however, that these prices can go up or down depending on the day you travel.

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What is SWISS doing to encourage train travel to and from its airports?

The airline is aware of the environmental impact of its Geneva-Zurich hop.

As an alternative, it offers, on certain routes, to replace the flight between the two hubs with a train service, under the code ZHT, with the price of the ticket included in the airfare.

Its ‘SWISS Air Rail’ service allows passengers to book a train conjunction with a SWISS flight. 

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