With Brussels Airport Still Closed, Brussels Airlines Is Getting Creative

Brussels Airlines

It’s been a week since the attacks in Brussels, and the airport remains closed. If you think this is an inconvenience for travelers, just imagine what’s happening at Brussels Airlines. The airline’s only hub is shut, and it is getting desperate. For that reason it’s had to get creative with how it operates its airplanes.

Remember, when the bombs went off in the airport last week, they did some serious damage. And Brussels Airport is in a particularly tough place to recover from this.

Brussels Airport Check In

The problem is that Brussels has only one terminal. There are technically two departure halls, though the second one is small and is still attached to the first, as you can see above. After check-in, regardless of hall, everyone has to go through the same security checkpoint before going into the two different piers. (That’s been the case for a whole week, at least.)

So when a bomb goes off, it’s not like the airport can just move everyone into another terminal temporarily. There is no other terminal. First, the airport had to wait for the investigators to finish up and that took a few days. Once they got in there, they had to find out if the structure was still sound. (It is.) But there’s a ton of damage in there, and they’re working furiously to get some temporary stations set up on the ground floor to handle check-in processing. Until that happens, the airport remains closed. That’s bad news for Brussels Airlines.

Brussels Airlines isn’t a big airline, but it has an important strategic purpose. With a fleet of around 35 narrowbodies, it flies all over Europe. But it has a smaller fleet of A330s that, other than New York/Washington/Toronto, are primarily used to serve the old colonial routes into Africa. The network is actually quite extensive with service to 18 airports in 17 sub-Saharan African countries.

Brussels Airlines is 45 percent owned by Lufthansa, and it uses Lufthansa’s Miles and More frequent flier program. It’s also a member of the Transatlantic joint venture with United and Air Canada. So it’s a niche carrier, but it serves an important niche bringing Lufthansa Group passengers from around the world into Africa.

With the bombings shutting Brussels airport, the airline is, of course, bleeding. But it’s bad for passengers as well, because some of these cities have no Lufthansa service outside of Brussels Airlines. With no service, they’re effectively wiped off the Lufthansa map.

Two days after the bombing, Brussels Airlines started to get things running, but only on its short haul network. It deployed its Avro RJ100 aircraft to Antwerp, a mere half hour north of Brussels Airport, to fly within Europe. That may sound ideal, but the airport has a runway less than 5,000 feet long. The Avro can handle that with ease, but it’s not great for much else.

Meanwhile, Liege, which is about 45 minutes southeast of Brussels Airport, picked up a bunch of flights with the A319/A320 fleet. Liege is the cargo hub of Belgium, but it doesn’t usually do much in the way of passenger flights. The airline is offering free shuttle bus service to both airports from Brussels.

The next day, Friday, Brussels Airlines got at least a piece of its long haul network off the ground. With those flights service a fair bit of connecting traffic, Liege wasn’t the best option. Instead, Brussels moved those flights to operate from Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub as well as from the Swiss hub in Zurich. (Swiss is owned by Lufthansa as well.)

This was a brilliant move. It allowed Lufthansa Group/United/Air Canada travelers to continue to connect on to these African destinations. And for those who were starting or ending in Brussels, Lufthansa-operated flights were added from Frankfurt and Munich to Liege to help feed people into the new network. Brussels Airlines is flying from Antwerp to Zurich as well.

The hope is that this won’t last much longer and the airport will be open again soon. But kudos to Brussels Airlines for really coming up with a workable plan in a pinch. I can’t imagine what it must be like to work there right now.

If you’d like to get an update on flights, this page on the Brussels Airlines website is being kept up-to-date.

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12 comments on “With Brussels Airport Still Closed, Brussels Airlines Is Getting Creative

  1. First, sympathy to all affected by these terrorists acts.
    News on this side of the Atlantic are of a partial reopening this week with only a handful of flights (20% of schedule) and weeks, if not months, before the airport is fully open for business again.
    Wonder if this kind of operation is (economically) sustainable for more than a few days !

  2. Flew from Liege to London yesterday, 28 March with British Airways. No, not Brussels Airlines (they’ve suspended the London route for the moment) but thought I might comment.

    First of all, everyone at the airport is trying to be nice and forgiving of things going wrong – whatever they may think privately, nobody is public expressing unhappiness at Liege.

    There are armed police and soldiers in fatigues with machine guns patrolling. By Monday evening a large tent had been erected with all baggage screened by X-ray machine and hand search of people before they could enter the terminal building.

    The police seem remarkably nonchalant though – I saw three large unattended suitcases which nobody claimed as their own – I needed to prod the police verbally a few times before they associated unattended suitcases with a security risk and decided to do something about it. The main focus of the soldiers (with their guns) seemed to be to help look for a small boy called Leon who had been lost by his mother – charming but perhaps not quite what their main job was !

    Belgium is in the Schengen zone, so immigration at Liege, either entering or leaving the country) is not particularly stretched. The main problem is the size of the terminal – it’s really quite small. Online checkin has been suspended, and the 10 desks can’t cope with the checkin volume, despite the efforts of crowd marshals from Brussels. The checkin staff are trying to be helpful, but the operational systems just aren’t there to handle this.

    Security staff are being very charming and friendly, but with just 2 X-ray machines and a single arch (another arch was present but not being used), they’re a bit pushed. The thing that really limits the airport is there are just 2 real gates, with each gate being attached to a pair of holding pens – thus there are four nominal gates but only 2 gates can be used at any one time. In the evening, they used one pair of gates for London + Tel Aviv, while the other pair were for Schengen. The rooms are not particularly large, and crowds are ever present – this is an airport that at the summer peak handles less than one 737 per hour of passengers.

    Aircraft handlers and ground gate staff are pushed to the absolute limit. They really, really need more people from Brussels to help with things like gate management, dispatch, fuelling, baggage, etc – Liege simply cannot cope with the volumes on this.

    Interestingly, flights to/from London Heathrow were very empty – 158-seat A320s were used on all flights, but occupancy on 4 out of the 6 flights was less than 20% and most passengers seemed point-to-point rather than onward connecting. On the other hand, fares for the Eurostar train from central Brussels to central London are now very high – I imagine British Airways’ offer to make tickets refundable has been widely used.

  3. Question: do most airports/airlines have disaster recovery plans if an event like this, or weather/natural related disaster would occur?

    1. SteveFromCVG – Yes, they do have emergency plans, but you can never really fully prepare for something like this.

  4. CF, Kudos to you. You bring up so many issues I think many of us love to discuss, in such a timely manner, concisely and with such a calm, well-reasoned approach. Well done, well done!

    As to your post, I just think we all need to think about how we design airports and everything else related to airline service and how we deliver it, both here in the US and overseas, going domestically and internationally, via the biggest airlines (and alliances) down to the smallest carriers, efficiently and conveniently for both the most sophisticated, high-tech traveler down to the no-tech “littles, all the while ensuring security with the ability to recover should something horrific happen and affordable and paid by whomever we think should, be it the country, state, region, municipality, the airline, the travelling public, or the general public.

    Simple, sure!! But, I don’t see how we can continue to maintain infrastructure and service without doing so in a much, much more of a consolidated nature in everything, be that:

    –highways and public transportation to airports,
    –airport parking,
    –check-in, (forget specific airline; consider some consolidated operator, like Swissport, etc.)
    –baggage handler and tarmac operator (one or two consolidated operators),
    –security clearance, (sort of there, but is it located at the right place within the system?)
    –parking of the aircraft (forget terminal gates and park the aircraft out in the field, saving on piers, concourses, gates, etc. and go the hard-stand route)
    –transportation to the aircraft (airport operator),
    –aircraft traffic controller (we’re consolidated there, aren’t we?)
    –customs (sort of there, but more and more individual airline facilities, is this good?)
    –rent-a-car transportation (think like McCarron Field, Las Vegas),
    –and what else?

    I don’t see how we can keep doing everything by and for airline-by-airline. Competition wrecking? Isn’t price, marketing, schedules, frequency, aircraft types, inflight service, and loyalty program enough to compete for? (Like I’m an expert on any of this!!!)

  5. A couple points–it may initially appear distasteful to talk topics like this, but there are real people who actually have to do this. After incidents disrupt transportation networks, companies, etc., it is a valid and important step to immediately start discussing how we recover from this. Think of all the diversions to Canada in the immediate wake of 9/11 and what that took.

    Anyway, that said, it’s scary to think of the logistical consequences had this happened somewhere like ATL, CLT, ORD T1, places that also have single terminals for huge operations without good options for other airports or terminals.

    1. As someone who worked in logistics when our network was severely disrupted my thoughts go out to everyone who is working this. Also, I’m sorry to say to those working through these problems: you’re at the beginning, not the end of it. (I worked at Chiquita (yes the banana folks) when hurricane Katrina shut down our Miami area port for a few days, and took out our Gulfport, Mississippi port for four months. Dealing with paperwork impact (invoices etc.) took another nine months or so.)

      Its fascinating to watch other logistics professionals pickup their logistics networks and do the best that they can to provide service.

      Tangentially, I’d be curious if ATL, CLT, ORD, or any other hub airport could/would operate on a connections only basis for passengers if screening were interrupted. Employees of course would have to be screened somewhere, but this could be setup elsewhere. (And yes I know that this means that since a significant number of passengers are local even at these airports, those airlines load factors will be significantly lower.

  6. My company does a lot of work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brussels Airlines is essential for transport in and out of Kinshasa. Air France is the only other european carrier servicing the route. But we generally use Brussels for our employees as it has the best connections to the US. We’ve had to shift to Ethiopian with connections in Addis Ababa at the moment, but it’s not as convenient. Many routes in East Africa as well are only well served by Brussels, like Rwanda and Burundi. This is pretty huge for transport to Africa right now.

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