A relatively small airline surrounded by giants, Brussels Airlines relies on being innovative in its customer-service approach in order to remain competitive at one of Europe’s fastest-growing hub airports.
Not only does Brussels Airport serve the city which is the political and administrative center of the entire European Union, but the airport lies in the middle of a very large catchment area of potential travelers for whom it is convenient for intercontinental or medium-haul flights.
Belgium – no part of which is more than a couple of hours’ train ride or drive from Brussels Airport – itself has a population of 11 million people, but that forms only part of the airport’s legitimate population-catchment area.
Travelers from Northern France, southern and eastern parts of the Netherlands, all of Luxembourg and even western border areas of Germany use Brussels Airport, particularly for intercontinental flights. All live within three hours’ ground-travel time from the airport.
As one of two growing airlines actually based at Brussels Airport (the other is TUI Group charter and low-cost carrier Jetairfly), Brussels Airlines must constantly evolve its network and its service offering carefully in order to compete sensibly with the sizable forces now ranged against it at its only hub.
Brussels Airport’s massive potential catchment area hasn’t gone unnoticed by other airlines. Neither has its 45-minute official connecting time between flights. Nor has its strategic location as what is now the Star Alliance’s westernmost hub airport in Europe.
All of the big three Gulf carriers now serve Brussels, as does Etihad Airways’ Indian partner Jet Airways (Brussels Airlines has forged codeshare agreements with both).
Along with some of the other intercontinental airlines serving Brussels and the fact of Brussels Airport’s position halfway between the huge competing hubs of Paris Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, these long-haul giants squeeze Brussels Airlines competitively on one side of its business.
Squeezing it on the other are not only Jetairfly but also three of Europe’s largest low-cost carriers (LCCs): Ryanair, easyJet and Vueling, all of which now base aircraft at Brussels Airport. Ryanair, Europe’s mightiest and most-feared LCC, started basing aircraft there in March 2014 and Vueling responded immediately by launching service on exactly the same routes from Brussels that Ryanair had decided to serve.
However, Brussels Airlines has one huge network advantage – largely a result of the long history of its ill-fated predecessor Sabena – which all other carriers serving Brussels do not. It boasts one of the most extensive long-haul networks to Africa of any European airline.
In long-haul terms a true Africa specialist, Brussels Airlines serves 17 cities in 16 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as two in Morocco.
This makes Brussels Airlines a popular partner for its fellow Star Alliance members, several of which have adjusted their Brussels schedules specifically to offer convenient connections to and from the Belgian carrier’s outbound and inbound Africa flights. (All of its outbound fights to Sub-Saharan Africa depart from Brussels between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. daily.)
Because of the growing threat from LCCs, Brussels Airlines has also had to think innovatively about its short- and medium-haul networks in order to remain a viable competitor at Brussels.
Geert Sciot, the carrier’s VP external communication, notes that Brussels Airlines has added 16 new European destinations since 2013 (many of them seasonal) in order to reflect Brussels’ dual nature as primarily a business destination for part of the year and very much an outbound and inbound tourism destination for the rest of it.
In fact, notes Sciot, some 55 per cent of Brussels Airport’s total passenger traffic is leisure-oriented. During the peak summer months of July and August, when the European Parliament and European Commission almost entirely close down, the airport largely handles tourists.
This fact, and the pricing threat the LCCs represent at Brussels Airport, has made Brussels Airlines think hard about its own short- and medium-haul service product. The carrier has innovated in two major ways in order to remain competitive.
One has been to develop an increasingly close relationship with Thomas Cook Group, one of Europe’s largest tour-operator and travel-agency groups.
In 2015, this strengthening relationship is not only resulting in Brussels Airlines operating 824 charter flights for Thomas Cook (the passengers carried on these flights won’t be counted in Brussels Airlines’ official 2015 passenger totals), but it is also seeing Thomas Cook buy blocks of seats on many of Brussels Airlines’ European scheduled flights.
The burgeoning relationship has also seen Thomas Cook agree to adopt some of the financial risk associated with Brussels Airlines’ service launches to several new European destinations. This factor could prove invaluable for the carrier when considering some of its future medium-haul route expansion, particularly to Mediterranean and North African destinations.
Just as vital to Brussels Airlines in trying to establish a competitive edge are the ground and in-flight service products and standards it offers its customers.
In response to the growing LCC threat at Brussels Airport, Brussels Airlines adopted a new, four-tier fare structure for its short- and medium-haul routes in August 2014. The new structure retained three existing fare categories, each of which offered degrees of re-booking flexibility, in-flight service, seat selection convenience and baggage checking (the top tier was a Business Class fare).
But Brussels Airlines started offering a new bare-bones, low-fare product, which it makes available for as little as one-tenth the price of the top fare.
This bare-bones product – ‘Check&Go’, available from €69 for a round-trip flight – only allows bag-checking for a €15 fee per one-way flight and only if the passenger books the checked-bag service online when booking and paying for his or her ticket.
Each bare-bones ticket is non-refundable and non-changeable, but advance seat selection is allowed via online check-in within 24 hours of the flight. However, children aged between two and 12 don’t receive any discount on the fare.
Brussels Airlines’ new fare category has proved highly competitive with the fare offerings of the LCCs at Brussels Airport. Although Sciot concedes his carrier’s yields have fallen, its costs have fallen accordingly as the airline has rationalized its fleet and made its workforce more seasonal (mainly by employing new flight attendants who work only during peak seasons of the year).
The proof of the pudding is that in 2014 (a year when Brussels Airlines operated 654 charter flights for Thomas Cook, the passengers on these flights not being counted in its official total for the year), the carrier transported almost 758,000 more passengers than it had the previous year.
This number represented a 13 per cent increase on 2013 – which, until 2014, had been Brussels Airlines’ best-ever year for passenger boardings.
According to Eric Kergoat, Brussels Airlines’ head of product development – customer experience, Brussels Airlines is long used to the role of innovator, for both ground and in-flight service products.
This might sound strange coming from an airline which only now is studying when and how to begin offering its passengers an in-flight connectivity service, but the record does tend to back up Kergoat’s claim.
For instance, Brussels Airlines boasts that not only was Brussels Airport the first European airport to allow Web check-in, but its prime tenant was one of the first European airlines to offer passengers a self-check-in service for checked baggage. “We’re still the only one doing it at Brussels,” says Sciot.
Brussels Airlines introduced its first two self-bag-check kiosks for short- and medium-haul passengers at Brussels Airport three years ago. So successful has the innovation been that the airline now has 14 there. More may be on the way.
On their first experience with one of the airline’s self-bag-check kiosks, passengers usually ask for help from the Brussels Airlines staff members stationed in the vicinity of the kiosks to provide assistance where needed.
However, on subsequent occasions passengers usually just perform the check-in themselves: at Brussels Airport, 75 per cent of Brussels Airlines’ short- and medium-haul passengers now use the self-check-in and self-bag-checking kiosks, according to Sciot.
For passengers flying on much higher fares, Brussels Airlines’ other major ground-service innovation in recent times has been its opening of ‘The Loft’. This is a big new premium-class lounge located in the area of the airport serving destinations within the Schengen Agreement area (that is, those European nations which have agreed to do away with border control inspections for passengers traveling among those nations).