Interview with Isabelle Duboule, Head of the Protocol Service at Geneva airport | June 2015

International Geneva obliging, Geneva airport is one of the few airports in the world to have a Protocol Service.

Isabelle Duboule, head of this service for the past 8 years, has worked here for 25 years. When she talks about all the personalities she's met, including Mandela, Lady Diana, the Thai royal family and Aung San Suu Kyi, it's enough to make one wonder whether anyone else on Earth, her colleagues notwithstanding, has met so many celebrities.

Every year no less than 4,440 personalities, heads of state, prime ministers, ministers and heads of UN delegations, members of royal families and representatives of religious authorities, enjoy this discreet, free and highly appreciated service.

Coordinating a team of 18 people working seven days a week from 6:00 am until often 11:30 pm, Isabelle Duboule greets us in the formal lounge that opens directly onto the apron. She talks about her work behind the scenes, the backstage of a protocol reception, and about the different personalities that can benefit from such a service. 

Why is there a Protocol Service at Geneva airport?

This service grew together with the airport, which received a major boost under the leadership of Louis Casaï, the Geneva State Councillor in charge of public works from 1936 to 1954. He convinced the Geneva Parliament to invest in the modernization of the airport. The existing runway was extended, allowing the airport to obtain the status of an international airport. He sensed that such a facility could become the engine driving the development of an international Geneva.

This created a virtuous circle. International Geneva developed because of the airport, which quickly benefited from the development of international Geneva. The need to professionalize the reception of diplomats therefore rapidly became apparent, and our service has in turn grown with the airport.

What is the role of this Service?

The Protocol Service exists primarily to welcome important personalities and enable ambassadors in Geneva to greet and accompany their Ministers or Heads of State to the door of the aircraft.

Who can benefit from it?

This service is for major political figures and their spouses (heads of state, heads of government, ministers, presidents of parliament), general secretaries or directors of international organizations and Heads of embassies when taking up their duties or during their final departures. It is also for senior religious, military or judicial representatives, sovereigns and members of royal families, as well as other personalities hosted by the Swiss authorities.

Each personality passing through our lounges can usually be accompanied by a maximum of seven people, but we must limit this number to four during major conferences such as the World Health Assembly or the International Labour Conference.

Is the service the same for everyone or are there differences depending on the type of personality?

There are two distinct procedures.

The first one consists of welcoming the personality at the bottom of the aircraft in order to bring them directly to our lounge by way of limousine, where they can then relax while my colleagues deal with formalities such as passports and luggage. The same procedure exists for departures. These individuals also benefit from our help in completing all boarding procedures without sacrificing their required security requirements, before they are taken by car directly to the door of the aircraft.

This procedure applies equally to the directors of international organizations, and personalities, and politicians of ministerial rank and up, and even Heads of State when they are traveling on a commercial flight.

Our other procedure applies to high-ranking officials traveling on a private flight. In this case we organize their reception in their own private vehicles, which are driven onto the apron and all the way to the plane. In this situation the personality gets off the plane and directly into his or her car without going through our facilities. If Obama were to come to Geneva for example, he would obviously exit the airport directly under escort. These exits, called 'tarmac exits', require a lot of organizing, which is more or less complicated depending on the number of passengers: we must identify the cars allowed onto the apron, communicate the car plates to the security officers, and even let the explosives disposal unit verify that the vehicle is not booby-trapped.

In addition to the reception given to them by the members of our service, high-ranking officials are also welcomed by an official representative of the State of Geneva and the Swiss Confederation.

In all cases this service is free.

How is the reception of a personality organized?

We begin by creating a daily list of the personalities who will be using our service. Personalities can inform us up to the night before their arrival, but we do try to remain flexible enough that we can be informed on the same day, depending on the number of people expected. This list is then distributed to the people concerned, such as the police, customs, airlines and ground staff.

Some receptions can end up being very complicated, so we discuss all details beforehand with: the diplomatic missions and the protocol services of the countries concerned; our airport partners; the diplomatic group and the international security police of the Geneva police. This often requires many meetings as each country has different demands and protocol requirements. I have experienced receptions requiring up to four preparatory meetings, each of them lasting four hours!

During the reception of a personality a few years ago, we were made to ensure the presence of a taster who proceeded to test all the food put on the plane, and a 'taster' of kerosene, who checked the quality of the fuel. This type of requirement is not easy to satisfy.

The diplomatic group of the Geneva police ensures the implementation of protection for certain personalities. Once a service of this type is arranged, they decide the number of vehicles allowed to join the convoy as well as where the aircraft should be parked.

How do you greet people such as John Kerry or Ban Ki-moon?

John Kerry is one of those individuals who travel on private planes and exit the airport without passing through our facilities. He benefits from close police protection and his convoy is composed of his own armoured vehicles that drive directly onto the apron. It is very secure. When Ban Ki-moon comes to Geneva we also organize for him an apron exit, even though he travels on a regular flight.

Do you work with Geneva-based international organizations and diplomatic missions for the implementation of this service?

We interact with them every day as we work mainly through official requests from diplomatic missions and consulates in Geneva, embassies in Bern, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and international organizations.

For embassies, the secretariat of the ambassador usually contacts us. There are countries with which we work more than others, but we know them all well. Ambassadors who were in Geneva for four years often pass through our service again, even if only to greet us when they return to Geneva after their departure. As recently as last week, an African ambassador previously stationed in Geneva used our services, but she has since become minister of foreign affairs. It was very emotional for us to see her again and we were happy that she remembered us all.

For the directors of international organizations who travel a lot, it is usually their secretaries who call us. They are by the way also our biggest customers. Our service is highly appreciated as it enables them to arrive only 30 to 40 minutes before their flight departure, which saves them precious time. We do our best to respond to their needs and they appreciate us even more because they travel a lot!

A few days ago, Peter Piot, the former Director of UNAIDS credited with the discovery of the Ebola virus, passed through our facilities as he was accompanying a minister of health. He used to call for our services in the past and was happy to see us. We create close ties with some of them and are sometimes sad to see them go.

Who are your other partners?

The Permanent Mission of Switzerland and the protocol division of the FDFA are both key partners. During the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program we worked a lot with the Swiss Mission to ensure that even the negotiators who did not have the rank of Minister could benefit from our services.

We also work with the State of Geneva Protocol Service, the military protocol, and the Geneva police, especially its international security police and diplomatic group.

On average, how many receptions do you conduct each day?

Each year, about 4,400 people pass through our facilities – or on average around 12 receptions per day.

In fact, there may be days with dozens of receptions, during major conferences, and some days with only a few.

On the Sunday before the opening of the World Health Assembly, or the day before the start of the International Labour Conference, up to 80 ministers use our service. We have four vehicles but in such cases we rent additional ones to satisfy the demand.

Among the personalities who pass through your service, what proportion are members of international Geneva?

International Geneva is our main customer. I would say it makes up about 90% of our customers. Other people receiving our services are royal families, often from the Gulf States.

What is a typical day?

In theory we begin our day with the first aircraft's arrival, so from 6:00 am until around 11:30 pm, which is the time of the last possible landing. That said, there is no typical day. It all depends on the types of procedures and personalities.

Besides protocol, my service is also responsible for airport visits as well as a helpdesk for visitors on arrival. So we share our staff between these three responsibilities.

Is there a reception that particularly impressed you?

When I first started working for the Protocol Service, I helped during the departure of Mandela. He had a small private plane and was driven onto the apron in his car. I had gone just to witness his departure so I stood a little further back with a colleague. He climbed up the first three steps of the plane, spotted us and came back down to shake our hands. It was very moving.

Any difficult moments?

My worst memory is the return of Sergio Viera de Mello, who was killed in an attack in Baghdad. His body was repatriated via Geneva airport. As High Commissioner for Human Rights, he often used our services and we liked him very much. 


June 2015

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