By Carole Shifrin, Contributing Editor
Brussels Airlines’ induction into the Star Alliance on December 9, 2009 may not have brought the heft of recent inductee Continental Airlines, but it brings the alliance some exceedingly valuable assets.
Chief among them are a strong position at delay-free Brussels Airport (BRU) – destined to become an important new European hub for Star partners and services – and a wide, enviable network of services to Africa that expands alliance passengers’ travel options into what, for many carriers, is a largely untapped continent.
Although relatively small, Brussels Airlines – which became Star Alliance’s 26th member – dominates the centrally located European hub with 200 daily flights and a 35 per cent share of its scheduled capacity (partner Lufthansa is the next largest at just 6 per cent). Brussels Airlines has frequent daily flights to and from 45 European destinations, offering single-day business trips from the “capital of Europe”, an operation that has resulted in dominant shares of capacity in some important BRU markets – particularly to Italy, France and Sweden.
The airline also serves 14 destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa, nine of them with non-stops. Its network includes some destinations considered “difficult”, such as Monrovia, Liberia; Bujumbura, Burundi; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brussels Airlines brings to the Star Alliance four destinations – Bujumbura, Monrovia, Kigali in Rwanda and Conakry in Guinea – not being served by other Star carriers. Fifth-freedom traffic rights also provide the carrier with a handful of valuable routes within Africa.
Brussels Airlines’ ancestral African roots date to the 1920s, when its predecessor carrier Sabena pioneered routes to the Belgian Congo. At the time of Sabena’s bankruptcy in 2001, a subsidiary with new ownership took over the assets and rebranded itself as SN Brussels Airlines, later merging with low-cost competitor Virgin Express and dropping the ‘SN’ from the airline’s name. Since June 2009, Brussels Airlines, which kept the SN flight code, has been 45 per cent-owned by Lufthansa Group, which has an option to acquire the remaining shares in 2011.
After Lufthansa acquired its stake in Brussels Airlines and their partnership developed, the next logical step was Star Alliance membership, but Bernard Gustin, co-managing director of the airline, says it is a good step for the airline group as well.
“Brussels Airlines and Brussels Airport offered a key opportunity in Europe for the alliance,” says Gustin. “BRU is an unknown diamond in Europe.”
With three runways, short taxi times and a two-pier terminal with 54 gates – allowing 98 per cent of passengers to board through jet bridges – the strategically-located airport has a current annual passenger cap of 28 million but is likely not to have reached 18 million in 2009.
“There is a lot of capacity for growth,” says Léon Verhallen, head of airline business development for Brussels Airport. BRU also has none of the delays of rival alliance hubs at London, Paris, Amsterdam and even Star’s own Frankfurt.