Brussels Airport Limps Slowly on Road to Recovery After March 22 Deadly Attacks
Things had been looking pretty well earlier this year for Brussels Airport which was moving towards realizing its management’s vision to someday transform the airport into a hub despite the fierce competition from other European airports that are already far ahead of Brussels in terms of passenger and cargo volumes.
Then came the deadly terrorist attacks of March 22, dashing, at least temporarily, the airport’s dream of creating a hub. Nevertheless, the airport management and the staff seem to be more determined than ever before, as one airport representative put it, to “create an even bigger and better airport in the future”.
Indeed, Brussels Airport seems to be slowly but steadily limping on the road to recovery. The latest figures released by Brussels Airport indicate that in March and April the airport clocked 1.2 million and 1.1 million passengers respectively, posting a 29.1% decline for March and a 46.5% decline in April over the year-earlier corresponding months. The cargo volume dropped by 20.9% in March and 4.8% in April compared to the year-earlier months respectively. The decline following the terrorist attacks, experts said, is a “normal consequence” of such a traumatic experience. Brussels Airport attributed these negative growth rates to the temporary suspension of operations at the airport following the March 22 attacks. In the final weeks of April, the airport traffic rebounded, recording a rise in both passenger and cargo traffic, with the airport trumpeting that customer confidence of passenger and cargo customers was being restored less than a month after the attacks.
Before the March 22 attacks, the number of passengers grew by 7.3% between March 1 to 21, compared to the previous year’s corresponding period driven by expansion activities of several airlines, including Brussels Airlines. Commercial passenger flights were suspended from March 22 until April 3, when the airport re-started operations; by mid-April, the airport claims, about 70% of its peak capacity on commercial passenger flights had been restored, with the airport portraying this improved situation as a sign of recovery of passenger confidence.
Cargo volumes were also affected by the March 22 attacks, though Steven Polmans, Brussels Airport’s cargo chief, maintained that cargo infrastructure, located on the other side of the airport, was not damaged; all the damage was done to the public area of the departure terminal. “Cargo was only hit by the closure of the airspace on the first day and the slow start-up of passenger traffic and, in effect, belly cargo.”
Indeed, full-freighter traffic was ready to re-start on March 24, but because of suspension of passenger operations until April 3, no belly cargo could be carried on passenger flights. The March cargo figures showed a 20.9% drop over the year-earlier period.
“Damage was extensive, but luckily the structural damage is very limited. The biggest problem today is the area where vertical circulation of passengers is done to connect them between the different levels, from train station to bus station to arrivals and departure. That area is closed for the moment,” Polmans told the AJOT.
The full freighter segment and the integrator services quickly recovered; Brussels Airport claims that these segments posted growth in April, with the full freighter segment posting 19.1% growth and integrator segment 2.7% compared to last year. Meanwhile, Ethiopian Airlines, repudiating earlier speculation of withdrawing from Brussels Airport, has returned, its cargo division resuming and even expanding its activities at the airport on March 26. The airport attributes the 39.2% drop in belly cargo on passenger flights to the limited number of long-haul flights in the months of March and April. Flights to most destinations have recently resumed, with belly cargo volume increasing week by week.
Before the attacks, Brussels Airport had handled 23.5 million passengers and 489,000 tonnes of freight annually.
While the passenger volume was very badly hit in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, cargo traffic resumed just after a few days. “Cargo volumes recovered quickly and we saw an increase week by week. Just three to four weeks after the attacks, cargo volumes were already higher compared to the same period last year. Passenger traffic is taking more time and depends on the restart of the flights. But also here we see a very strong increase week after week, with volumes end of April being only about 10 to 15% below the figures of last year,” Polmans explained, adding that cargo volumes were slightly below last year’s figures, “although this is changing as of May when we are expecting to see growth again, despite the departure of Jet Airways from Brussels”.
The airport’s cargo chief noted that much of the infrastructure should be rebuilt by end June, when the terminal is expected to be completely reopened. “At this stage it is not yet clear what the financial impact is for our company, as especially on cost side, there is no full picture yet. But it looks like on the revenue side, we will see a drop of around 100 million euros,” he said.
Polmans said that Brussels is served by 77 airlines offering 226 direct destinations worldwide. Some airlines have not, yet, returned to their normal operations, offering today for example only four frequencies instead of their regular five weekly frequencies. Some long haul carriers also decided to postpone start of a new route (for example United with its second daily Newark flight) or delay resuming their flights (Delta’s daily Atlanta flight will resume in summer 2017). “But all in all, it looks like most carriers very soon will return to their original schedules as operated before the attacks. So that is very good news for us. No airline took the decision so far to completely stop their operations at Brussels,” he said.
Polmans said that morale of airport workers has been very high. Thousands of airport workers “worked day and night to get the airport up and running, very often in difficult circumstances”. “… it is the ambition of our CEO and the airport management to turn these tragic events into an opportunity to start building on what we call “the airport of the future.”