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Brussels Airport fights back.

This feature is another in the series of aviation stories originally published in print magazines around the world. This was originally published in 2019 and as such facts and dates are relevant to that time. There have been some minor adjustments but to all intents it is the same.

I talked with Arnaud Feist, CEO of Brussels Airport company to see how the airport has moved on from the attacks of 2016.

Brussels airport terminal

March 22, 2016 was a terrible moment in the history of Brussels airport (LFBO / EBBR). Breakfast time at this busy central European airport was shattered by a suicide attack which killed 17 and injured many more. Two bombs were detonated in different areas of check in, just a few seconds apart, however a third attacker was immobilised by the previous explosions and he failed to detonate his device, which was later destroyed by a controlled explosion.

The airport was completely closed down following the attacks and after a few initial planned dates, did not re open until April 3, with a Brussels Airlines flight to Faro, in fact the home airline were the only operator allowed to fly from the airport for a period of time. Heavy restrictions were in place with only passengers being allowed into the temporary departures hall.

BRU departure hall

However three years on and the situation is completely changed and although security is still very high with all but essential vehicles no longer allowed at the front of the terminal and armed military personnel on duty both inside the terminal and at the entrances and exits. The areas damaged by the attacks have all been completely repaired and refurbished and the airport has just finished a year of festivities celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Small beginnings

At the time of the July 5, 1958 inauguration, which happened in a typical Belgian rainstorm, it had just one terminal designed by a trio of Belgian architects, sporting two 565ft (172m) piers. Sky Hall, the former transit hall from the original buildings has recently been refurbished with all the glazing replaced and a new roof structure bringing the building up to current standards whilst maintaining its iconic look. In this first year one million passengers passed its doors buoyed in particular by the World Fair held that year in the Belgian capital. 60 years later, quite a lot has changed.

"This is a milestone anniversary for an airport that is an integral part of the history of our country and has participated in many of the events that have shaped Belgium. For several months, Brussels Airport will be decked out in new colours and take us down memory lane into its rich past, while highlighting our belgitude with Belgian products and icons. ” said Arnaud Feist, CEO of Brussels Airport Company at the time.

Over this period of time the piers have been renovated, new terminals have been constructed to take over from ones now abandoned. The very successful cargo operation, BRUCargo, was created in 1979 and now contributes so much to the overall success off the airport, spreading to cover over 100 hectares.

By the end of 2015 passenger numbers had increased to 23.4 million and cargo to nearly 490,000 tonnes. During that year an all new structure was constructed as Feist explains; “One of the most striking innovations at Brussels Airport in the past years is Connector, the building which links the passenger terminal to Pier A above-ground.

Before Connector passengers had to use a tunnel to go to their gate in Pier A. To improve passenger comfort, the tunnel was replaced by a spacious surface building.” It is not only just for greater passenger appeal, it was also designed to be more energy efficient as Feist continues; “ It is a contemporary, open, low-energy building with an eye to the future. One of Connector’s immediately striking features is the saw-tooth roof. Apart from aesthetic and technical considerations, this saw-tooth structure of the roof has the advantage of letting in more natural light, thus creating a pleasant environment as well as being energy-efficient. Passengers are part of the airport, and so it was decided to build an open and transparent building that would give them a broad view of all the activities that go on here.” Having used both the tunnel and Connector your author can confirm just how much better the new building is.

brussels airlines 320 red devils

Impact of the attacks

However the events of that Tuesday in late March 2016 were not only measured in human terms but financial as well with a crippling effect on the airport traffic levels combined with the obvious knock on effect for companies making their income from passengers, in addition to hotel closures in the near vicinity.

With the airport closed completely for nearly two weeks and a phased opening taking considerably longer (the departure hall which suffered the majority of damage was only partially reopened by May 1), the drop in comparable traffic levels to the same time in 2015 were as low as 46.5% for passengers in April and although cargo levels quickly recovered they also saw a drop the previous month of 20.9%. Overall 2016 saw a drop of around 1.6 million or 7% in passenger numbers with a similar percentage reduction in movements. Cargo was much more resilient and despite the drop in March and April actually rose by 1.5% over the year.

The airport not only bounced back to pre attack levels in 2017 but quickly superseded them and in 2018, its 60th anniversary year, surpassed the 25 million passenger mark for the first time in its history and achieved it’s highest cargo volume in ten years at 732,000 tonnes. This growth was largely down to an 18% growth in long haul traffic with new routes to the far and middle east. Cathay started a route to Hong Kong with Hainan Airlines flying to Shanghai and Shenzhen over in neighbouring mainland China. Emirates started to Dubai, Thai Airways to Bangkok and there was an increase in the capacity of the Ethiopian service to Addis Ababa.

The 60th anniversary celebrations in 2018 turned out to be even more important following on from the events less that two years earlier as it was a time to show the world that both the airport and more importantly perhaps its employees and Belgium as whole had moved on and not been dragged down, as Feist put it; “Brussels Airport is above all a big family and it is with the family that we want to celebrate our anniversary with passengers, airlines, all our staff and partners, and also the whole of Belgium because most Belgians have memories, a link, an anecdote related to their airport. This anniversary gives us the opportunity to look back on the recent history of our country and also to project ourselves into the future”

Events to mark the anniversary ranged from music, food and giveaways on the anniversary itself to a photo retrospective in Connector showing passengers and staff important points in the six decades of operation and even onto the streets with well known Belgian faces spreading the word.

The airport, which is 75% owned by a consortium of private investors with the remainder held by the state, is very proud of its nationality and examples of this can be seen throughout the terminal and indeed by extension to the national airline with the many logojets sporting Belgian icons. If you fancy a photo with the Smurfs then Pier ‘B’ is your destination, if it something a little different then you can find Tintin’s rocket in Pier ‘A’. Around all areas there are works of art depicting traditional Belgian themes as diverse as the Atomium, a Smurfs toadstool or a Natan designer dress made from a very Belgian product- chocolate!

The airport also entertained and surprised its passengers with such diverse things as free boxes of chocolates appearing on baggage reclaim belts to various sporting attractions like demonstrations by professional footballers and basketball nets above recycling bins and various sporting games for passengers of all ages to participate in.

A little bit of the annual Tomorrowland festival is brought into the airport with DJs performing in the terminal buildings to get passengers heading for the event (and those not) into the party mood. Like your clothes? There was even a free fashion show.

Terminal design

Feist explains that the layout of the terminal buildings is quite simple; “Since Belgium is quite small, we have no domestic scheduled flights and therefore no need for a terminal for domestic flights. Nor do we have a terminal for a specific alliance. Pier B is intended for non-Schengen traffic. Pier A, which is parallel to Pier B and connected to the terminal by Connector, is intended for Schengen traffic. Gates A/T at the end of Pier A are also used for flights to/from Africa operated by Brussels Airlines. In total, we have 57 contact gates, 22 Bussing Gates and 4 Walk to Stand gates.” Regarding these gates he went on to say that; “Brussels Airport has inaugurated a triple passenger boarding bridge. Thanks to the new bridge, passengers will be able to board and disembark from larger aircraft much faster. The triple boarding bridge is the first stage of the 52-million euro long-term investment in boarding bridges at Pier B. Gates 31 and 33 were equipped with a triple boarding bridge which will be used as a double bridge for wide-bodies including the Airbus A330 and A350 and the Boeing 777 and 787. The bridge can also be used for the largest passenger aircraft in the world, the Airbus A380.”

The check in area is split into two quite distinct sections with the main area directly in front of passengers entering the terminal building with what is in effect a separate room used when traffic levels are high and the main area cannot cope with the numbers of passengers needing checking in. These areas were heavily damaged in the attacks, although no signs remain today other than a sense of ‘newness’.

Although the airport and its staff need to move forward and it could be said are actively not dwelling on past events, there is a small plaque near the escalators remembering those affected by the events of March 2016.

The airport has invested in digital innovations to further enhance the passenger experience. In addition to the regular web and social media sites it is using Facebook messenger to make available its AI based Chatbot which answers questions from passengers regarding flights, car parks and the services in and around the airport. It can also send out personalised notifications. There is even a real face to this technology as you might bump into BRUce Pepper once past security. This humanoid robot can read boarding passes and give flight information, such as the gate where the passenger has to board the flight. It can even think beyond the airport and give you real-time information on the weather at your destination. It can also give practical tips and information about the shops and restaurants and even offer you a discount voucher. Naturally, it knows the way to the toilets, and you can play a quiz with it, or take selfies.

Economic importance.

The airport is an integral part of the Belgian economy and its central position is important for the development of an economic centre, attracting all types of companies to the airport and surrounding areas due to the connectivity and inter modality such a site brings. This is something that Feist is proud about; “Brussels Airport is a vast logistics platform. Together with the port of Antwerp, it accounts for the major share of imports into and exports out of our country. The principal sectors in the Belgian economy, including the pharma, biotechnology, chemical, perishables, e-commerce industries rely on Brussels Airport for the quick and careful shipping of their goods.”

Strategic Vision 2040

Brussels like many European airports faces a challenge to accommodate expected growth over the coming years, particularly at peak hours. “Without investments in additional capacity, the European airports will, by 2035, no longer be able to satisfy the demand and expected growth and will miss the opportunities for creating jobs and economic added value. Within Europe, medium-sized hubs such a Brussels Airport, which have not yet achieved their full potential, have the best growth opportunities.” considers Feist

The airport has a plan to take itself forward to the year 2040. This ambitious plan is designed to meet the expected growth expected in the coming years and should double the number of jobs at the airport.

This expected growth will of course mean more aircraft movements and Feist is confident that it is an achievable goal; “According to our calculations, under all weather conditions, 84 movements per hour will be required by 2025 and 93 movements per hour by 2040 in order to meet the market demand. These calculations are based on the predicted average European growth.

At the moment, the capacity is 74 movements per hour. Brussels Airport wants to increase this capacity in two stages. [Firstly] optimising the current runway usage [and then] adapting the existing runway infrastructure” This is expected to be achieved by both the use of modern technologies such as precision and continuous descent approaches as well as the ability to reduce separation and better use of the airports three runways as well as constructing additional runway links to enable aircraft to enter or leave the runway quicker. Another set of options envisage a possible extension to the 07R/25L parallel taxiway or to both this taxiway and the runway itself.

To cope with the extra passengers, two additional piers are to be built: Pier A west by 2023 and Pier C by 2030.

EUR 100m will be spent on the Brucargo zone which brought the airport the award for International Cargo Airport of the Year in 2018. It will be turned into what the airport describes as a ‘top-tier logistics centre to support the key sectors of our economy, such as the pharmaceutical and the biotechnology industries. The success of these industries relies on a supply chain of efficient and high-performance transport infrastructure and storage facilities.’ It appears that DHL agrees as, in recent years, they have increased their already considerable presence there.

Feist is looking forward to the future with confidence; “The hope is that these developments will lead to more destinations for our passengers and more export and import opportunities for our businesses, allowing Belgium to continue to play it’s leading international role, whether on an economic, diplomatic or cultural level.”

Things are starting to move in the right direction as Feist is keen to mention that in addition to the previously mentioned new routes; “Georgian Airways is operating 2 flights a week to Tbilisi.

Ryanair is starting two weekly flights to Amman, a new destination, and to Marrakesh, a new destination for Ryanair.”

In addition, the home based carriers are also expanding. TUI fly is offering a new weekly flight to Mombasa, a route that is combined with Zanzibar and two weekly flights to Puerto Rico.

Brussels Airlines inaugurated a three times a week flights to Wroclaw, a new destination for Brussels Airport as well as four times a week to Kiev, a new destination for the airline.

Brussels airlines a320 magritte

These new routes bring the total to 248 destinations from 98 countries, 13 of which are cargo only served by 80 airlines. Europe and Africa are the main markets.

Rwandair A330

Part of the plan is to increase the level of transport links. The airport is situated just a few kilometres north east from the city centre. Currently there are good links to the motorway network and there is even a road specifically for cyclists. In addition the airport has its own dedicated railway station which has direct links to other Belgian cities and a regular service to Brussels South railway station where passengers can make connections to many other European cities as well as Eurostar services. As part of the plan a new tram service is being created, two out of the three new lines will route through the airport including one linking with Brussels North railway station.

This plan aims to achieve its goals by balancing the economic developments of the airport whilst working with and respecting both the environment and neighbouring residents, with whom there is an ongoing dialogue.

Simply put by Feist; “This balanced approach constitutes the very foundation of the Strategic Vision 2040.”

In addition, in 2010, the airport set a target to reduce its carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. By 2017 a 34% reduction had already been achieved, so the figure was revised to 40% by 2030. These successes enabled Brussels Airport to achieve the internationally recognised carbon neutrality certification, or full CO2 neutrality of own emissions (Airport Carbon Accreditation level 3+) in 2018.

Belgian Airforce ERJ135

Belgian airforce c130

Passenger and cargo traffic are not the only operators at this European destination. On the northern side of the airfield sits the Melsbroek Airbase from which the Belgian Airforce operate its Lockheed C130, Airbus A321 and Embraer ERJ135 aircraft.

In addition due to the UN and European Union having offices in Brussels there are often government aircraft visiting for various reasons. Also to support operations both TUI and Brussels Airlines have maintenance facilities and in addition Lufthansa Technic also have a facility. Execujet maintain an FBO here supporting biz jet movements.Over at the Fire Service facility there is an ex Brussels/Korongo Airlines Boeing 737-300 which was damaged at Mbuji May in 2015.

Facilities for spotters

In April 2018, Brussels Airport inaugurated two new plane spotting platforms. Apart from offering a great view of the airport, the platforms allow aviation enthusiasts to engage in both viewing and photographing movements in a purpose built and safe environment. The spotting platforms have been named after the take-off and landing runways they look out over, 01/19 and 07R/25L and are multi level offering uninterrupted views onto the runways they border and on into the apron area.

When asked what his dreams for the future of Brussels Airport were, Arnaud Feist was both succinct and ambitious; “Develop an economic centre, Further connect our country to the future [with] job growth to 120,000 jobs [and] becoming one of the top European Airports in terms of passenger experience, giving passengers a unique sense of place.”

With the resilience this airport and its employees has and the successes already achieved who wouldn’t bet on this dream becoming reality?

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