By Carole Shifrin, Contributing Editor
Brussels Airlines expects to expand its already-extensive services to Africa, a move which would bring additional connecting possibilities for Star Alliance passengers at its growing hub at Brussels Airport.
The Brussels carrier currently serves sub-Saharan Africa with flights to 14 destinations, nine of them with nonstops, and its roots there run deep. Its predecessor carrier Sabena’s history on the continent dates to the 1920s, when it pioneered services to the Belgian Congo. So Brussels Airlines is well acquainted with the challenges of operating to Africa, and has an expertise most carriers lack.
For that very reason, don’t expect any new flights soon. It can take between one and two years to mount new service to Africa, according to Geert Sciot, Brussels Airlines’ vice president external communication.
It took the airline two years to build the infrastructure necessary to begin flights to Bujumbura, Burundi, says Sciot. The investment included building a fence around the airport – considered an airport function in the developed world – when airline officials realized villagers were routinely crossing the runway, which would have posed a safety danger.
Investments required in Africa start with the basics, building everything from the ground up, such as power generation. Necessary investment includes hiring and training locals in all the tasks necessary to operate flights, such as processing passengers, providing catering, servicing the airplane and assuring safety standards.
Brussels Airlines has experienced expatriates on staff locally, but most ground operations managers are African, Scoit explains. The airline has trained and licensed its own handling and catering staff, has its own commercial set-up in all stations, and conducts in-house monitoring of security and safety in each location.
Even so, because of the continent’s lack of extensive infrastructure and to compensate for a lack of support in out-stations, a Brussels Airlines maintenance engineer is on board every flight to Africa to handle in an expeditious manner any maintenance issue that may come up.
“These aircraft are their babies,” Sciot says of the engineers. If there is a bird strike, for example, an assessment can be made on the spot, he notes. “Otherwise, it would be 20 hours-plus to get there.”
Because of its long history in Africa, Brussels Airlines has built long-lasting relationships of trust with authorities, says Bernard Gustin, the carrier’s co managing director, during the carrier’s Star Alliance joining event in Brussels last month. “We have stayed in Africa even in times of trouble,” he says.
At one point, notes Gustin, the carrier had to stop service to Guinea for a few days, but resumed flights quickly. The airline has never suspended its twice weekly service to Luanda in Angola, he adds, even though others did.
See Page 2 for more on Brussels Airlines’ operations in Africa