Please note: this story was originally published on November 25, 2013. We will continue to report new information as the situation continues to develop.
Thousands of British skiers face chaotic journeys to the French Alps after New Year because of a sudden new Swiss ban on all foreign minibuses and taxis at Geneva Airport.
On a busy winter Saturday up to 500 licensed French-based minibuses and taxis – the majority of them run by British companies operating legally from French ski resorts – cram into the Swiss side of Geneva airport to ferry skiers to resorts from Chamonix to Val d’Isere.
Unless commonsense prevails in the run-up to Christmas, these drivers face arrest from New Year’s Day onwards, the impounding of their vehicles and their passengers being stranded.
“It’s a pretty daunting prospect,” said Simon Byrne of Mountain Express, which normally does around 60 pick-ups on the average Saturday.
“The root cause is the belief by Swiss–based transfer companies that French-based companies are taking the business that they feel is theirs. The reality is that they can’t begin to cope or compete with the volume of transfers from Geneva to the French Alps.”
Swiss taxi drivers have been vigorously protesting for some time at the lucrative cross-frontier trade, and earlier this year the Canton of Geneva brought in a rule that each foreign taxi or minibus would have to pay a fee of CHF400 per year. Most of the big operators accepted this, but a consortium of French firms took the Swiss to court and won on the grounds that this was a breach of free trade.
The Swiss retaliated with a raft of health and safety regulations loosely based around a previously inactive EC directive. Instead of CHF400 per car they are asking for CHF90 per taxi driver rather than per vehicle. Importantly, each minibus driver has to produce a personal certificate of qualification. The problem is that in France such a certificate simply doesn’t exist. What is more, the Swiss gave the British and French taxi companies in France just a fortnight in which to comply.
The dispute has now reached the ministry of transport in Paris, which is arguing directly with their Swiss counterpart. If no solution can be found, a consortium of British and French taxi drivers is expected to apply for an injunction before the end-of-year deadline.
If this cannot be achieved they are threatening to boycott Switzerland altogether and try to pick up their fares from the French side of Geneva airport. However, this area is so small that the arrival of 500 minibuses is liable to bring the entire airport to a halt. The new rule also applies to those British tour operators that already have licenses to run their own minibuses.
Ironically, the new law allows minibus companies to cross the Swiss frontier from France and drop their passengers at the airport. But once a new passenger boards the vehicle the driver would be liable to arrest.
Representatives from transfer companies have meetings scheduled with the Swiss authorities this and next week, in which they’re confident a compromise will be reached. So if you are planning on taking any form of taxi or minibus transfer from Geneva Airport this winter, watch this space.
Update 1: November 26 2013
On November 26 Senior Manager, Chargé de Missions, at Geneva Airport, Jean Luc Portier, said: “Buses from any ski resorts will be able to come to the Swiss side of the airport. There is no question about the airport not letting them do it.”
However, as we understand the situation at the moment, the problem would lie with the police and not the airport authorities who are sympathetic to the situation and working hard to resolve it.
At present – until some agreement is reached with the Canton – it seems that the only people who have the required ceritificate of competence for the license are the actual owners/managers of transport companies and taxi firms, but not their drivers. (As a result, if the new regulations come into force, company owners will still be able to operate their taxis from Geneva airport, providing they do the driving, and provided they are granted one of the new licenses.)
Opinion amongst taxi and transfer firms is divided as to whether the issue will be resolved quickly. As you’ll see from the comments below, many in the business are adamant it will be. Others are not so sure. One owner of a medium-sized taxi firm in the French Alps told me, “This is a very large mess and is going to seriously affect the ski tourism industry this winter. I just hope that “bad” publicity will at least help make the people directly affected in Switzerland (Airport and airlines) sit up and take notice and maybe have some influence on the situation.”
Hopefully an agreement will be reached before the January 1 deadline.
Update 2: December 12 2013
Good news! The Swiss authorities have bowed to pressure from French and British transport companies and extended the deadline for the new licences until January 30. However little more than half the estimated 1600 drivers have so far applied for registration because it remains unclear what qualification documentation is required. At the last count, only 68 licences had been issued.
While the immediate threat over New Year is lifted, the Swiss are still insisting that any taxi or minibus driver trying to pick up passengers risks criminal proceedings from February 1 unless he has registered within the time limit.