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.
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.