Published on May 22nd, 2016 | by Jim Lee0
While passenger and cargo transport recovering at Brussels Airport, Brussels Airlines’ March figures fall significantly
It is now two months since the terrorist attacks in Brussels, which caused so much personnel loss, and brought the country’s main airport hub, to a standstill. As Belgium remembers all those affected by the tragedy, it is a sign of the resilience of the country and its people, that despite the terrible damage done and the loss incurred, that there are signs of recovery.
In a statement on 19th May, Brussels Airport indicated that its passenger and cargo transport was recovering, and confirmed that it had welcomed 1,214,485 and 1,074,538 passengers in March and April respectively. This was a 29.1% decrease on March and a 46.5% decrease for April of last year. The cargo volume dropped by 20.9% in March compared to the corresponding month in 2015. For April a 4.8% decrease was recorded. These negative growth figures were the result of the temporary suspension of operations at Brussels Airport following the 22nd March attacks in the departures hall. In the last weeks of April, the airport recorded growth in both passenger and cargo traffic leading the airport to say that “the confidence of the passengers and (cargo) customers in Brussels Airport is being restored”.
In February, Brussels Airport handled over 1.5 million passengers. The growth of 11.2% compared to February 2015 is, to a small degree, due to the extra day in the leap year. When, however, the calculations are made with 28 days as in 2015, there is still a strong growth of 7.8%, compared to last year. This growth had been expected to continue into March, and indeed in the period between 1st and 21st March, the number of passengers grew by 7.3%, compared to the same period last year. Growth was attributed to the fact that several airlines, including Brussels Airlines, expanded their activities at Brussels Airport.
Following the resumption of commercial passenger flights on 3rd April, the airport was able to restart at 20% of its peak capacity for departing passengers. Passenger payload increased week by week to reach about 70% in the second half of April, a clear indication “that passenger confidence is recovering”.
Cargo volumes in March and April were also affected by the 22nd March attacks, although cargo volume at the Airport, also declined by 1.8% in February, compared to the previous year. Full freighter traffic was resumed on 24nd March, but because of the suspension of the passenger operations until 3rd April, no cargo could be carried on board of passenger flights. In March cargo traffic recorded a 20.9% drop on March of last year.
The full freighter segment and the integrator services quickly recovered and were again showing positive growth in April: up 19.1% in the full freighter segment and up 2.7% in the integrator segment compared to last year. In the full freighter segment, Brussels Airport welcomed back Ethiopian Airlines Cargo, which resumed and even expanded its activities at the airport on 26th March, as it had previously announced. The 39.2% drop in belly cargo, (cargo carried on board of passenger flights), can entirely be attributed to the limited number of long-haul flights in the months of March and April. In the course of April, flights to most destinations were resumed and Brussels Airport saw the belly cargo volume increase week by week.
Due to the exceptional circumstances, the number of movements at Brussels Airport for the months of March and April is hard to compare. In the period prior to the attacks (until 21st March) the number of movements increased slightly by 1.9%, compared to the corresponding period of last year. This increase is about four times smaller than the increase in passenger numbers for this period (+7.3%). Full details are given in the table below:-
Brussels Airlines’ passenger figures fall significantly in March
Passenger figures published by Brussels Airlines for March clearly illustrate the impact of the events of 22nd March on the airline, followed by the 12-day closure of Brussels Airport, its home base. A total of 455,599 passengers flew with Brussels Airlines in March, which is 19.1% down on March 2015. It is the first time in more than 2½ years that Brussels Airlines has recorded a passenger decrease. In fact, in the period up to 21st March, Brussels Airlines recorded a passenger increase of 9.6% and an increase of its seat load factor by 6.1 percentage points. This was in line with the growth of the previous months.
From 22nd March onwards, the figures were heavily impacted by the attacks at Brussels Airport and for the rest of the month – which promised to be very busy because of the Easter exodus – no traffic was possible to and from the airlines’ hub. A limited part of its European schedule was possible however, due to their relocation to the regional airports of Liege and Antwerp, from 24th March, and part of the intercontinental schedule was organised through the airports of Frankfurt and Zurich. In addition, the airline proactively offered its passengers, alternative travel options with other airlines, and allowed their customers to cancel or modify their travel plans, without any charge. Between the 22nd and 31st of March, Brussels Airlines managed to fly 54,650 passengers to and from these alternative airports. Compared to same period last year, 197,421 passengers travelled to and from Brussels Airport.
March 2016 ended with a passenger decline of 19.1%. In total 385,725 passengers flew on a European flight, 61,292 passengers travelled to Africa and 8,582 passengers flew with Brussels Airlines to New York. The load factor fell by 0.5 percentage points, which resulted in a 68.6% load factor overall.
The cargo activity was obviously heavily influenced by the attacks as well. Until 21st March, the cargo load factor amounted to 69 percentage points. The cargo traffic was largely interrupted after 22nd March. A total of 2,609 tons of cargo was transported in March, which is a decline of around 21% compared to March 2015.
Commenting on the figures, Lars Redeligx, Chief Commercial Officer said: “As expected, our March figures are very heavily impacted by the events of March 22nd, which took away our main work tool, our home base Brussels Airport, for 12 days. Thanks to the dedication of all Brussels Airlines colleagues, the support of many partners and the flexibility of our guests, however, we were able to partially recover our operations from alternative airports, which was a very complicated logistical task. Between 24th March and 3rd April, it enabled us to operate 1,010 flights or 38% of our normal flight schedule. Our main focus now is getting our operations back to 100% and to offer our guests a comfortable and smooth travel experience again.”
March March Month/month
2016 2015 difference in %
Passengers 455,599 563,365 – 19.1%
Available seat-kilometres (in millions) 1,053.23 1,231.81 – 14.5%
Revenue Passenger-kilometres (in millions) 722.26 850.75 – 15.1%
Freight ton-kilometres (in millions) 10,593 16,531 – 37.7%
Overall Load factor (Passengers & Freight) 53.8% 60.9% -7.1 pct. points
Passenger Load Factor PLF 68.6% 69.1% – 0.5 pct. points
In addition to its scheduled flight activity, Brussels Airlines operates many holiday and group flights for tour operators. Passenger figures for this activity are not included in the figures of this press release.
Whether Brussels Airlines will suffer longer term damage during 2016 remains to be seen. In 2015, Brussels Airlines was one of the fastest growing airlines in Europe, with a passenger growth of 13%. Turnover also increased in 2015 by 6.9%, to a total of €1.274 billion. After a break-even in 2014, the higher turnover, together with a significant cost reduction in 2015, resulted in an operating profit of €43.1 million and a net profit of €41.3 million.
While things are improving Brussels Airport faces a number of challenges
Although things are clearly improving, Brussels Airport still faces a number of challenges. While train services to the Airport resumed on 22nd April, trains are departing from the old train station, as access to the main station is currently not available as it is located in the airport building which was damaged by the attacks. In addition, the capacity of the old train station is smaller and there is no ticket office, only ten ticket machines. The lifts and escalators are currently not usable, so that passengers can only use the stairs. As an alternative, the bus station is located on level 0 – one floor down from the arrivals hall – and can be easily reached by using the escalators or elevators. In addition, dropping off passenger by car is only possible in the car parks. However, in car parks P1 Front Park, P2 Economy and P3 Holiday, it is possible to park free of charge for fifteen minutes to drop off passengers.
Following the chaotic overcrowding and long queues that marked the introduction of the new flight schedule on 2nd May, security screening was subsequently relaxed at the airport, particularly before entry to the check-in facilities, and as a result the long queues seen in the first few days of the new flight schedule dissipated. This meant that the check-in procedure became smoother. It followed a decision by the Police unions and the Belgian home ministry, who decided that all passengers would no longer be checked, before they entered the departure halls. Passengers now pass through a white tent at the entrance. Twenty metres before you enter the tent are two police officers, who tell you either to take the left or right hand lane. Passengers on the left do not have to undergo so called pre-screening. On the right ID papers, tickets and luggage are all checked. The selection is random and waiting time to enter the departure halls is now some 20 minutes. Difficulties remain within the departure halls however, as there are fewer check-in counters. Therefore Brussels Airport is still advising passengers travelling beyond the Schengen Zone to arrive three hours before their departure time. Two hours should be enough for travel within the zone.
Subsequently problems surfaced on 11th May, when baggage handlers and ground staff, employees of Aviapartner, one of two firms that handle baggage at the airport, went on strike in a dispute, reportedly over working conditions, which were said to have declined, in the aftermath of the 22nd March attacks, which killed 11 people and injured scores more. According to local media, workers have complained about a “lack of respect, bad management and under-staffing.” Although Kurt Callaerts, of the union ACV Transcom, said: “A mistake with the last pay slips was the immediate incentive [for the industrial action].” If so it seems very trivial.
Aviapartner handles several airlines including Jetair, SAS, Etihad and Qatar Airways and the strike, which started at 14:00, caused considerable problems during the afternoon and evening. It came to an end by midnight and during that period staff refused to handle luggage from incoming or outgoing flights, leaving many passengers to go home without their luggage, or late. It also led to 30 flights being scrapped, while others were delayed.
Marc Descheemaecker of the Board of Directors at Brussels Airport said that “I understand the staff’s emotional reaction” but also added that “it really should be finished now.”
In April, air traffic controllers took strike action over plans to rise the retirement age, leading to many flight cancellations.
……. and finally
The brother of Najim Laachraoui, one of the alleged Brussels airport bombing terrorists, will represent Belgium at the Rio Olympics, in the Taekwondo competition. Mourad Laachraoui (21), qualified after he won gold at the recent European Taekwondo Championships in Montreux, Switzerland. He will be part of a squad of 185 Belgian athletes taking part in the August games.
At a news conference after the attacks, Mourad described his brother as a “nice, intelligent boy” who showed no signs of being radicalised, but explained that he and his brother hadn’t seen each other since Najim left for Syria, in 2013. He added “You don’t choose your family,” and also that that he wanted to “turn the page” in the hope that his brother’s notoriety will not disrupt his athletic career”.