Brussels Airlines’ flights currently cover 10 countries in East and West Africa – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Côte D’Ivoire, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Senegal and Sierre Leone – and flights into three central African nations: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is market leader; and Angola and Cameroon. It also operates flights on five intra-African routes.
Even with the continent’s instability and the difficulties of operating there, says Gustin, Brussels Airlines has “big plans to develop” its African network further. “We are assessing some developments,” he says, as the carrier looks to reinforce its Brussels hub as a gateway to Africa.
Citing increasing governmental and international-organization travel to Africa, along with strong oil, mining and other business segments, and important African expat and ethnic travel and tourism, officials of the airline believe there is a growing passenger market in Africa. At present, Africa represents about 12 per cent to 13 per cent of Brussels Airlines’ passenger traffic, but produces a higher proportion of its revenue, they say.
There are also huge year-round cargo volumes, including shipments of personal effects, handicrafts, fresh fish and express shipments such as engine parts. Strong seasonal traffic includes flowers, fruits and vegetables shipped to Europe.
Sciot believes Brussels Airlines differentiates itself by the experience and know-how of its staff, both local and expats, and by the connections it has created in the countries, politically and economically. Its reputation is such that some passengers fly from some of the airline’s East Africa destinations to Brussels to connect to flights to West Africa, Sciot says.
After Sabena entered bankruptcy almost a decade ago and a re-branded Brussels Airlines was formed, the new airline kept Sabena’s long-standing ‘SN’ flight code. Many African travelers still refer to the airline as Sabena, says Sciot, and ‘Sabena’ also became a popular name for girls born there.
As a result, the airline still benefits from Sabena brand/product awareness, even in destinations it doesn’t currently serve; and this provides a major potential for growth, Sciot says. Expansion will definitely come, though not during the current worldwide economic crisis, he says: “It is not a question of whether we will do it; it is a question of when.”
The airline operates four Airbus A330-300s with business-class and economy-class cabins on its African routes. At Brussels Airport, the African flights operate from four gates at a dedicated ‘gateway to Africa’ or ‘Espace Afrique’ at the end of the airport’s A concourse, the same pier used for the airport’s intra-European flights.
Operating from this pier limits walking distances between gates and guarantees 50-minute connections between African and European flights, airport officials say. There also is quick bus service to bring intercontinental passengers the short distance from the airport’s B intercontinental concourse to the African handling area.
Two adjacent gates are set aside for expansion of the ‘gateway to Africa’, an airport official says. A Brussels Airlines ‘Sunrise Lounge’ specifically for business travelers to African destinations is situated at the end of the pier next to the gates. Nearby is a children’s play area. Also close is a glass-enclosed smokers’ “cage” for transfer passengers who must smoke but cannot leave the secure non-smoking terminal.
As part of its emphasis on Africa, Brussels Airlines publishes a separate bimonthly in-flight magazine for its long-haul network, focused substantially on Africa, with quick guides to all the cities it serves there.
Carole Shifrin has been a Washington-based freelance writer for ten years. Her career includes 15 years at Aviation Week & Space Technology, where she served as Dallas Bureau Chief, London Bureau Chief and Senior Transport Editor, and 13 years as a staff writer at The Washington Post. Carole is the recipient of numerous awards, including the prestigious Lauren D. Lyman Award for distinguished, career-long achievement in aviation journalism.