When overnight we were following the Ethiopian Airline hijacking story, one thing that was missing from the Twitter narrative was the lack of any reports of scrambled Swiss fighter jets - something that has become a staple when an airplane deviates even modestly from its course above the continental United States. As it turns out it wasn't merely a journalistic oversight: there were, in fact, no fighter jets scrambled. Why? Because the hijacking which took place around 3 am, and culminated with the 767 landing in Geneva just after 6 am, took place outside of regular air force hours!
The AFP's reporter writing up this story must have been trying hard to avoid bursting brain capillaries due to excess laughter. Here is the gist:
When the co-pilot on flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa to Rome locked himself in the cockpit while the pilot went to the bathroom and announced a hijacking, Italian and French fighter jets were scrambled to escort the plane through their respective airspaces.
But although the co-pilot-turned-hijacker quickly announced he wanted to land the plane in Switzerland, where he later said he aimed to seek asylum, Switzerland's fleet of F-18s and F-5 Tigers remained on the ground, Swiss airforce spokesman Laurent Savary told AFP.
"Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend," he said, adding: "It's a question of budget and staffing."
Monday's hijacking, carried out by 31-year-old Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn, according to Addis Ababa, took place in the very early hours, with the aircraft and its 202 passengers and crew landing safely in Geneva at 6:02 am (0502 GMT).
That was just two minutes after the airport opened for business, and two hours before the Swiss airforce is operational.
So how long until the neutral Swiss can hope to have 24/7 fighter jet protection? At least another 6 years.
French fighters can escort a suspicious aircraft into Swiss airspace, "but there is no question of shooting it down. It's a question of national sovereignty".
Swiss airspace is under constant electronic surveillance, he pointed out, adding that the wealthy Alpine nation is also studying the possibility of expanding its airforce coverage to a round-the-clock operation. That plan is however not set to kick into action until 2020, when Switzerland is expected to replace its fleet of fighters with Swedish Gripen planes.
In the meantime, they can rely on the French to protect them: "Switzerland relies heavily on deals with its neighbours, especially France, to help police its airspace outside regular office hours. He explained that French fighters can escort a suspicious aircraft into Swiss airspace, "but there is no question of shooting it down. It's a question of national sovereignty."
Our sincerest condolences aside to any nation that relies on France to protect it from airborne attack, any and all aspiring European dictators with delusions of grandure and hopes of taking over the continent will surely want to know when they can land their entire airforce in the Swiss country unimpeded:
... the Swiss airforce is only available during office hours. These are reported to be from 8am until noon, then 1:30 to 5pm.
Then again, now that Switzerland has lost the one main industry that made the country the envy of the entire world, namely its banking industry which was a juggernaut during the "secrecy" years which are now over and done with, who really would bother invading some green alpine meadows and a few Milka cows?