Low-cost carrier easyJet has announced a further expansion of its operations at Geneva airport – its main Swiss base – with the addition of regular flights to Hamburg and Prague.
But plans to reopen an old terminal for use by low-budget airlines remain on hold following a challenge by Air France.
EasyJet, which is the number two airline in Switzerland, announced on Thursday that it is to introduce daily flights from Geneva to Hamburg from December 1 and to Prague from October 29.
The company says it is looking to attract business travellers and skiers from the northern German city and tap into the burgeoning demand from tourists for the "jewel of eastern Europe".
In addition the airline, which is aiming to break the three-million passenger barrier at Geneva airport this year, is also increasing the number of daily flights to Madrid, Lisbon and Amsterdam.
Philippe Vignon, marketing director for easyJet Switzerland, told swissinfo that the extra destinations and flights still left plenty of room for manoeuvre both in Geneva and its other base in Basel.
"EasyJet has got an average growth of 15 per cent a year and there is clearly room for additional growth in both our bases," he said.
But while Geneva is seeing expansion, easyJet has opted to "consolidate" its position in Basel, where it began operating in March 2003.
Vignon pointed out that the situation at Basel's EuroAirport was "more complex" than in Geneva since the catchment area covered three different countries, two currencies and three languages.
"In Basel within ten months we launched 15 destinations, and so the growth which we had there was massive within a very short period of time," he said. "Now we are consolidating but it doesn't mean we aren't going to grow further in Basel."
Vignon added that easyJet had no plans to impose a fuel surcharge on passengers despite rising oil prices.
EasyJet says it now has a 16 per cent share of the Swiss market, in second position behind Swiss International Airlines (34 per cent). But the low-cost carrier is the undisputed leader in Geneva where it holds a third of the market in terms of seat capacity.
However, two-year-old plans to refit the older of the airport's two terminals – Terminal 2 – as a no-frills docking centre offering lower passenger taxes remain blocked by Air France.
The French carrier fears a two-tier system will give low-cost airlines an unfair advantage and has taken its case to the Federal Competition Commission.
Vignon, who described Air France as "the enemy of airports", claimed the hold-up was not affecting his company's plans in Geneva.
He said easyJet was continuing to work with the airport authorities to find a "win-win solution", adding that Geneva still had spare capacity.
Robert Deillon, general director of Geneva airport, told swissinfo that while capacity was sometimes stretched during the winter season it had not stopped development of the airport.
"Of course Terminal 2 was one possibility to increase the capacity of Geneva airport. Now we have to find other solutions," he said.
"It's not a setback, because if you look at the development of the airport, we had growth of about ten per cent last year. Now we are growing at a rate of about six per cent, which is still high compared to the growth we have in Europe – and we still have spare capacity."
Deillon, who referred to easyJet as a "high-efficiency" rather than a low-cost carrier, added that the ongoing partnership with the airline was a major asset for both the airport and the local economy.
swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva
1997: easyJet UK opens London-Geneva route.
1998: launch of easyJet Switzerland.
1999: carrier opens hub in Geneva with three aircraft.
2003: begins operations in Basel.
2004: pulls out of Zurich, citing expensive airport charges.
EasyJet Switzerland, which employs 227 people in Geneva, offers 22 regular destinations from the western Swiss city. Hamburg and Prague are to join the list later this year.
In 2005 the company carried 2,524,549 passengers from Geneva – an increase of 26% on the previous year.
In the first six months of this year, easyJet transported 1,579,728 passengers from Geneva – a 19% rise on the same period last year. The carrier hopes to break the three-million barrier by the end of the year.
Last year 9,410,917 passengers flew out of Geneva airport.
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