29. November 2022

Air rescue services in Upper Valais to continue to be provided by Air Zermatt

The Valais Cantonal Rescue Organization (KWRO) has selected both Air Zermatt and Air-Glaciers for air rescue operations in Valais for the coming years. Both companies are highly satisfied with this decision. 

Air Zermatt has various reasons to be pleased with this result, which should also be seen as recognition of the service the company has been providing in Valais without charge for around 55 years now.

  • Both aviation businesses are relieved that Valais will continue to have the densest network of rescue helicopters in Switzerland for the benefit of patients and accident victims.
  • All of the staff are passionate about the rescue service they provide. Both companies have always strived to ensure that far more helicopters were deployed in rescue operations than stipulated by cantonal regulations.
  • This decision by the KWRO allows Air Zermatt and Air-Glaciers to continue flying without being obliged to downsize.

“For us, the KWRO’s decision is a clear sign that we’ve been on the right track in recent decades. It means that Valais can continue to count on the high quality of the rescue services provided by the two companies, as well as on the extensive experience and know-how of our pilots,” says Philipp Perren, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Air Zermatt AG and Air-Glaciers SA. 

The decision in favor of the two Valais companies also means that all rescue resources in Valais – from avalanche dogs, mountain guides and emergency doctors to ambulances and helicopters – will continue to be dispatched by the KWRO from a single source. This is the only appropriate solution, as every additional control room, such as a separate one for air ambulances, costs time and causes patient to suffer as a result.

What is also important is that dispatch is carried out by an independent party that does not have its own interests to pursue. This means that in Valais at the KWRO, and in Zurich at Zurich Protection & Rescue, the largest control room in Switzerland, all rescue resources are dispatched by an independent control room.

Densest air rescue network in Switzerland

The Canton Valais air rescue plan provides for three rescue helicopters each in the Upper and Lower Valais in “high season”. In fact, Air Zermatt and Air-Glaciers regularly operate five to six aircraft each (more than ten in total) in both parts of the canton at peak times.

With these five to six aircraft, Valais thus had far more helicopters in each part of the canton than the entire – significantly larger – canton of Graubünden. The business operating in Graubünden, on the other hand, provides just two to three helicopters for the entire canton, which means that Lower Valais alone has twice to three times the number of helicopters of Graubünden as a whole. Ten or more helicopters are available in Canton Valais at peak times, almost as many helicopters as the competing bidders have rescue bases in the rest of Switzerland.

According to the evaluation of the bids by the KWRO’s cantonal air rescue system, the company bidding in Lower Valais offered just one aircraft. 

No need for more rescue helicopters in Valais

With Air Zermatt and Air-Glaciers operating a total of more than ten aircraft at peak times, the two companies see no need for any more rescue helicopters in Valais.

  • In the Engadin, a valley around 100 kilometers in length – the distance from Lake Geneva to Visp, or Martigny to Gletsch – the competing bid offered one single helicopter. Six machines are already officially required as a minimum in Valais, and in reality more than ten rescue helicopters are available for use. Instead of a seventh (or an eleventh) helicopter in Valais, therefore, one in Engadin would be more appropriate. 
  • Nor does Sion need a helicopter to better serve the Bernese Oberland and the east of Canton Vaud. The Bernese Oberland lies to the north of the Alps, and often cannot be approached from Sion at all due to weather conditions. What is more, both the Bernese Oberland and Canton Vaud are too far away from Sion, and there are closer bases for these locations, e.g. those of Air-Glaciers in Collombey, Lauterbrunnen or Saanen. Sending a helicopter from Sion to the Bernese Oberland and Vaud makes no sense either from an economic or an ecological perspective.
  • When a competitor says that its helicopter has already been deployed 680 times from Sion – of which an estimated 660 times in the Bernese Oberland and Vaud – this means that the patient had to wait 15 minutes longer 660 times and the insurance company or patient was obliged to pay thirty minutes more 660 times than if the nearest suitable helicopter had been used.
  • Moreover, Air-Glaciers has two bases in Saanen and Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland, and these helicopters could also be used in Valais. So far, the need for this has arisen in very rare cases only.

“No other region in Switzerland has such a dense coverage of helicopters as Valais. That's why we don’t need any more helicopters here – not even in Sion,” concludes Perren.

Continued avoidance of duplication in the Valais air rescue system

Currently, the primary rescue helicopters at the four bases in Valais each fly around 800 missions a year – which corresponds to around 400 flight hours. If an additional helicopter were now added here on a year-round basis, the primary rescue aircraft would fly only around 400 missions, or around 200 hours a year. Not only would this no longer be financially viable, but the crews would also no longer be able to maintain reasonable and safe levels of activity, as more than five full-time positions are needed for round-the-clock coverage. This would leave a crew with just 80 missions or 40 hours a year, which would no longer allow for safe flight operations.

Pioneering work for over 110 years

Modern air rescue was shaped significantly by these two Valais-based companies, which have been carrying out rescues at the highest level in Canton Valais (initially even throughout Switzerland) since 1965 and 1968 respectively. Air Zermatt has received the Helicopter Heroism Award three times for its services – in 1971 for the first direct rescue from the north face of the Eiger (a mission that REGA is happy to take credit for), then in 1975 for a rescue from the north face of the Badile, and finally in 2011 for a rescue at almost 7,000 meters on Annapurna in Nepal. Together, the two companies have carried out over 125,000 rescues to date. Always based on visual flight rules – because, unlike holiday flights, mountain rescue operations are flown using visual perception only. The two companies look forward to continuing to serve the public with the best crews and a fleet of aircraft optimally suited to the mountains.


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