A new airline, yet to incorporate let alone take off, wants to establish itself as the British winter sporter’s favourite, with Sion as its hub. PowdAir plans two flights a day, five days a week, from five UK airports – Southend, Southampton, Bournemouth, Bristol and Edinburgh – to the small town in south west Switzerland, whose landing strip is conveniently located beneath the east end of the Quatre Vallées ski area, also known as Verbier; 10 miles from passport control to lift station at Haute Nendaz or Veysonnaz. That’s fifty flights a week, or possibly ten, priced from £99 each way including ski carriage. Anne Bovier, director of Sion airport, declares herself delighted with this ‘magnificent’ plan, as well she might.
The news will also be welcomed by regular British visitors to Sion’s local resorts. “Valais is the most highly reputed region of the Alps for British skiers who go to Zermatt, Verbier or Crans Montana,” PowdAir spokesperson Rob Stewart told Le Nouvelliste, to which one could add Saas Fee, Nendaz, Grimentz and a handful of other small fry. If reported correctly, this is not saying much more than ‘Valais is the region preferred by skiers who go there’ …. as one might expect.
The question is: how many of these Valais-philes are there? Mr Stewart continues: “Britain is the second biggest tourist market for winter sports after Germany, with about one million exponents.” France, Austria and Italy might have something to say about this.
At the last estimate, Switzerland’s share of this million was about 5%. That was before most chalet operators abandoned Switzerland when the employment rules were changed, forcing them to pay chalet girls the Swiss minimum wage. And before the Swiss central bank unpegged the franc from the euro, giving fresh impetus to the relentless rise of the Swiss currency.
The pound has lost half its value against the Swiss franc in the last decade, during which period a Verbier hotelier reports that his British occupancy has declined from 80% to 20%. PowDair will also be aware that most of Switzerland – including Davos, Klosters, St Moritz, Wengen – falls outside Sion’s catchment.
It’s true that second home owners don’t buy package holidays or fill in forms for the tourist office and thus escape the statistical trawl, as do their fortunate house guests. There can be times and places where these expat communities can seem quite substantial, overpowering even. Nendaz claims to have 400 British chalet owners, and they come out in force at holiday time, singing carols around the village at Christmas.
Local property specialist Will Herrington of Frozen Action reckons there are about 100 British owners in Grimentz, where new chalet development this century has been heavily promoted in Britain.
It goes without saying that the market for chalet ownership in Switzerland is a rarefied niche. The rich Brits may have a large impact on a small village like Grimentz, and they will be delighted by the flexibility offered by PowdAir’s busy schedule of 100-seater Fokkers toing and froing between Sion and the UK. But will there be enough of them, and will they be happy to fly from Southend or Southampton, when they could hop on the DLR or the tube and fly from Heathrow or London City?
Swissair (as I still call it – sorry) has tried to make a go of one weekly flight to Sion before and is trying again this winter, with no promise that the experiment will be repeated next year. PowdAir is relying on a Croatian-based airline Trade Air, to handle its flights next season, before taking over in December 2018. Will it get that far? An investment in Swiss property might be safer than buying shares in PowdAir.