As the only European airline still serving all of the three West African nations in which the 2014 outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF) first reached crisis proportions, Brussels Airlines is uniquely qualified to discuss reasons for maintaining service to those countries throughout the course of the outbreak.
Brussels Airlines serves Conakry in Guinea (the nation where the 2014 Ebola outbreak began), Monrovia in Liberia (the country which had seen greater numbers of cases of the viral disease by November 2014 than anywhere else) and Freetown in Sierra Leone. The only other European airline still serving any of the three countries as of mid-November was Air France, which was maintaining service to Conakry.
Speaking exclusively to www.AirlinesAndDestinations.com at Brussels Airlines’ headquarters at Brussels Airport, Philippe Saeys-Desmedt, the carrier’s vice president sales for Africa and global cargo, says the airline continually takes various factors into account in its decision-making regarding continuation of service to the three countries.
Prime among these factors, he says, is that “the risk is much lower than the general public thinks”.
Brussels Airlines continually performs and updates its own risk assessments of the service situation to the three countries and is in intensive communication with the various expert organizations most closely involved in fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, including Belgium’s own Ministry of Health and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
As part of this process, Saeys-Desmedt takes part in daily Ebola situation-monitoring conference calls with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S., the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp and the international gateway airports and governments of the three nations where the crisis initially developed.
“The experts say the risk is low, if not nil,” as long as the three governments, their main airports and Brussels Airlines itself maintain the precautions they already have in place, according to Saeys-Desmedt. “This is the [main reason] we decided to keep operating” to the three countries. “We still fly because our risk assessment is that it is safe to fly.”
Médecins Sans Frontières has visited Brussels Airlines’ headquarters to explain in detail the risks, noting in particular the length of the incubation period of the Ebola virus within each victim before the virus causes the victim to break out in a fever and thus to become infectious to other people.
EHF is spread by contact – even slight – with any body fluid from a victim who has become feverish, or who has died, as a result of the disease. However, the medical expert organizations say that during the incubation period the virus is not infectious, according to Saeys-Desmedt.
So, while Brussels Airlines was the airline which carried Eric Duncan – as of mid-November, the only person to have died in the U.S. from the current Ebola outbreak – to Brussels, from where Duncan flew on to the United States on United Airlines, he flew on the Belgian airline while he was still incubating the virus and so he wasn’t infectious, Saeys-Desmedt says.
This is not to say that Brussels Airlines does not take very strict precautions before letting anyone travel on board its aircraft from any of the three West African Ebola crisis nations. Eric Duncan, who flew from Liberia on September 19 before all the precautions now in place had been fully implemented, had lied about his history of contact with the disease on Roberts Airport’s official questionnaire, Liberian officials alleged.
Now, none of the governments and airports in the three most affected countries rely on prospective fliers being honest in official questionnaires as regards their potential exposure to Ebola. Nor does Brussels Airlines.
“We work very closely with local governments” in the countries, in order to make sure that every potential passenger is fully and effectively screened before boarding an aircraft, says Saeys-Desmedt.
Before any passenger is allowed to board a Brussels Airlines aircraft bound from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, he or she must submit to having his or her body temperature measured multiple times, usually at least three times.
Any body temperature above a certain, undisclosed temperature causes the airline itself to ban the passenger from flying on the airline for at least three weeks and also until his or her body temperature has fallen below the threshold measurement.
This three-week temporary ban is crucially important: No person who has died of EHF has survived for as long as three weeks after exhibiting symptoms of the fever and thus becoming infectious, according to Saeys-Desmedt.
“What we are checking is if the passenger has developed a fever,” he says. “This is the gate-keeper. This is no longer incubation.”
When Brussels Airlines suspends a passenger’s reservation, if the passenger comes back after three weeks and is shown not to have a body temperature above the threshold level, the carrier resurrects the reservation and allows the passenger to fly.
As of November 4, Brussels Airlines itself had temporarily suspended the reservations of 77 people trying to fly from the three West African countries within the previous three months, “because we thought they were suspicious cases,” says Saeys-Desmedt.
Subsequently, all 77 passengers returned later to take up their reservations. It transpired that none of them had contracted Ebola, but had been infected with more common, but less lethal, diseases such as malaria.
Saeys-Desmedt concedes that, as in many other parts of the world, African government and airport officials could potentially be bribed by Ebola-carrying passengers to allow them to board flights. However, he insists this is very unlikely to happen in the three crisis nations.
“The three governments know that if they leave one case out, we will stop operating. I think the three governments have understood that they would be leaving themselves open to enormous risk [by acceding to bribery], because we and others would stop flying there,” says Saeys-Desmedt.
“Also, the three governments and their controls are scrutinized on nearly a daily basis,” by CDC and WHO audits. Both organizations are highly active in the three countries in fighting the Ebola outbreak. “The system is more or less watertight,” Saeys-Desmedt avers.
While Brussels Airlines’ risk-assessment process – and the advice given it by international medical organizations on a daily basis – provides the primary justification for the airline to continue serving the Ebola-crisis nations, it isn’t the only reason why the carrier wants to do so.
Brussels Airlines, which operates to 17 Sub-Saharan destinations as well as two in Morocco, has been an Africa specialist throughout its short history. This began in 2002 when Delta Air Transport began operating under the name SN Brussels Airlines to fill the void left by Sabena ceasing operations the previous year.
But Belgium’s long-haul air service relationship with Africa began more than three-quarters of a century before Brussels Airlines itself did. The carrier’s storied predecessor Sabena, much of whose network Brussels Airlines now has duplicated, began serving Leopoldville in the then Belgian Congo in 1925.
At least 90 per cent of Brussels Airlines’ long-haul network and business involves Africa, according to Saeys-Desmedt: its only long-haul routes not to Africa are a year-round service linking Brussels with New York and a seasonal service to Washington Dulles.
Additionally, through a joint-venture carrier called Korongo Airlines which Brussels Airlines manages and operates for flights within the Democratic Republic of Congo and between the DRC’s capital Kinshasa and Johannesburg, the Belgian airline effectively operates to four more destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Saeys-Desmedt himself embodies Brussels Airlines’ extremely strong commitment to Africa. An airline-industry veteran, Saeys-Desmedt has lived in Africa for 46 of his 54 years. His job for Brussels Airlines immediately before he took up his current position was as head of the carrier’s Kinshasa station – its biggest station in Africa, with 172 staff members stationed there.
Sabena’s and Brussels Airlines’ strong ties with Africa mean that “we have a very long-lasting, good relationship with these three [Ebola crisis] countries”, Saeys-Desmedt declares. “And we also see a humanitarian responsibility” – a decision-making factor cited by the few other airlines, such as Royal Air Maroc, which have continued to serve the three nations.
“We have always been a brave airline,” adds Saeys-Desmedt. “And we have got a lot of support from ICAO, the World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontières,” for continuing to fly to the Ebola crisis nations when most other carriers have stopped serving them.
Brussels Airlines doesn’t insist that any of its flight or cabin crew members fly on its aircraft to Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone: It asks for volunteers from its crew complement to operate the flights and to date has always found sufficient volunteers from their ranks to maintain a full schedule.
The importance of Brussels Airlines doing so cannot be overstated in the fight against Ebola. Saeys-Desmedt points out that, without scheduled flights by the handful of airlines still serving the three West African nations, volunteers and officials from the expert medical organizations wouldn’t be able to travel to and from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and possibly wouldn’t be able to get vital medical supplies there quickly.
Additionally, yet another important reason for doing what Brussels Airlines sees as the right thing is that “there is a danger in not [flying] officially,” he says. “Then there would be no more checks and people would fly clandestinely,” all but ensuring that the Ebola outbreak would become out-of-control and would spread throughout the world.
In addition to the terrible human cost of the current Ebola crisis, the disease has affected Africa’s airline industry badly. At least one airline ‒ Gambia Bird ‒ has ceased operating. Gambia Bird stopped flying late in October because the UK Department of Transport revoked its license to fly between Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown and London as a result of the crisis.