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As though high-flying hi-tech executives weren't hurting enough, this week they suffered another blow, from an unexpected direction.

"Our stock options dropped, the company closed down, but at least we have our frequent-flyer miles from the gay days of globe-trotting," they consoled themselves.

Not if they flew Swissair. If they did, their miles may have disappeared with the rest of their fortunes.

Israelis have always loved the Swiss carrier. It had a code-sharing arrangement with El Al, its flying times were convenient, it offered good deals and bone-weary businessmen appreciated the lavish legroom it provided in business class.

All history. No miles, no bonus points, nada, in all likelihood. All that's left is the vague hope that Crossair, which is taking over some of Swissair's assets and routes, will be generous in preserving its perks. Swissair and Crossair both belong to SAirGroup.

In any case, Swissair's grounding three weeks after the September 11 attacks on the U.S. is a good test case of the economic repercussions of the horrible events.

Extracted from the void by the Swiss government, Swissair resumed half its flights today, and will gradually step up its operations toward normal after grounding its fleet on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday because it was dead broke.

Under normal circumstances, the grounding of an airline, followed by an emergency government cash infusion to keep it limping, would generate shockwaves and front-page headlines. After all, it's a national airline with a global reputation for punctuality and conservatism, born of a country whose unusual culture has created some of the world's best companies, such as Nestle.

But three weeks ago two planes crushed the World Trade Center and another crashed into the Pentagon. Surely nothing can surprise us any more, especially if it has to do with aviation.

Right? Not really, not if we knew how to read.

Flying too high
The smoke shrouding Wall Street after the attacks couldn't hide the fact that whole industries were already floundering and foundering. The attacks merely sorted them into two types: ones for whom the events were the final straw, and others simply using it as an excuse for their poor performance.

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To be fair, Swissair belongs to both groups. The catastrophic events of September 11 sent the whole aviation industry reeling. But it was already spiraling down anyway, and had been for years.

As for Swissair specifically, it began to hobble three years ago, as was evident from its executive reshuffle and business strategy change half a year ago.

It had good reason to change strategy. A few years ago it adopted a misguided policy of mergers and acquisitions too big for its boots. Among other things, it megalomaniacally decided against teaming up with fellow carriers in various joint ventures, electing instead to launch its own Qualiflyer club, meant to make it a global player competing with Lufthansa's Alliance Star, United, Air Canada and their ilk.

Swissair paid for its expansion plans by borrowing billions. The results came to light in its 2000 financial statement, which revealed a loss of $1.7 billion and debt exceeding $4.5 billion.

If there's something weird and it don't look good, Who ya gonna call?
To be blunt, the Swiss carrier's collapse was on the wall before the Twin Towers crumbled into smoldering dust. The attacks just hastened the inevitable: One moment Swissair was one of the world's classiest companies, the next it was grounded. At least until the Swiss government stepped in.

Swissair has something in common with a lot of Israeli companies these days. Many are blaming their earnings warnings on the terror attacks on New York, although all the events often did was bring a brewing disaster into sharp focus.

The whole thing also makes us think about El Al, which has done well since the attacks from its reputation for airtight security. But after patting the Israeli carrier on the back, we should recall that it too is burdened with debt and losses that demand drastic moves.

Indeed, three weeks ago El Al announced that international consultancy MacKinsey will shortly be dishing up a new business strategy plan.

Strategy is a good thing. It's also a good thing that Israel's national airline is taking advice from one of the most prestigious consultancies in the world.

But in the week that Swissair buzzed the ground precisely because of botched strategy, one suddenly recalls whose were the brains behind it. None other than MacKinsey, in fact.

All we can do is hope that MacKinsey will serve our El Al somewhat better. While the implosion of Swissair dented little more than Switzerland's pride and bank profits, here in Israel, the ones to foot the bill will be the taxpayers.