Brussels has a good airport

The heart of Europe: Brussels-Zaventem Airport in an airport portrait

The visitor looks in vain for the “Moon destination” on the display board of Brussels Airport - even if the rocket from the Tintin Comics of the same name by the Belgian illustrator Hergé is in the focus of the terminal at the airport. Nevertheless, the list of destinations is impressive. In addition to European destinations, the airport offers numerous flights to North America, Asia and above all Africa - and at the same time acts as a showcase for the Belgian way of life for guests from all over the world.

This includes a wide range of national specialties from beer to chocolate as well as the presentation of the rocket from the books by Hergé, who is so highly regarded in Belgium that he has his own museum in Louvain la Neuve - a world first for a comic -Illustrator. Brussels Airlines, based here, even painted an A320 with a motif from the Tintin comics in his honor with the OO-SNB.

Home of Brussels Airlines

For the Belgian flag carrier, Brussels is the home airport and hub for flights all over the world. The company is the largest airline at the airport. It operates a dense network of flight connections from the Belgian capital. This also includes long-haul flights. The airline is particularly well represented on the African continent. The majority of Brussels Airlines' passengers are transfer passengers who change trains at the airport. Like other major airlines, Brussels Airlines handles the flights and thus the handling of passengers in bursts. A large number of long-haul flights, especially from Africa, arrive at Brussels Airport between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.

Long-haul flights leave the airport between 10.30 a.m. and 12 noon. In the middle, then, European flights fit in, which in addition to regional travelers also bring or forward passengers on long-haul flights. Numerous European flights leave the airport between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. The second largest airline at Brussels Airport is TUI fly Belgium. The airline also has its home base at the airport. The company offers flights from Brussels to the usual holiday destinations on the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, but also to Eastern Europe. Morocco is a very popular destination. A whole host of low-cost airlines can be seen alongside these two companies.

Ryanair, Vueling, Easyjet, Air Arabia, Blue Air, Wow Air and Eurowings offer regular connections. In addition, Brussels is served by several of the major international airlines such as Lufthansa, KLM and British Airways. Long-haul flights to North America are offered by Air Canada, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines from Brussels, among others. From Asia, Ana, Cathay Pacific, Hainan Airlines and Thai Airways can be seen regularly at the airport. Ethiopian Airlines and Rwandair come from Africa, and Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad planes from the Middle East. As Head of Aviation Development, Léon Verhallen is responsible for developing the route network. Its job is to make airlines around the world aware of the advantages of Brussels.

For him, Brussels is the heart of Europe - a phrase that the airport uses as a slogan. And there are actually good arguments for that. “In any case, we are the political heart of Europe,” says Verhallen, not without pride. And geographically, too, the city is located in the center of the continent. Of course, that alone is not enough to get airlines all over the world to take up flights. That's why it's good that facts and figures speak for the Belgian metropolis. “Belgium has 11.5 million inhabitants. That is certainly a considerable home market, ”says Verhallen. In addition, the airport's catchment area extends into the Netherlands, Luxembourg, northern France and the border regions of Germany. Based on a journey time of 90 minutes by car, the airport reaches 15.2 million people.

Terrorist attack in 2016

Many of them actually use the airport. In 2018 the airport handled 25.7 million passengers. Compared to the previous year, the growth was 3.6 percent. At the same time, the number of flight movements fell by one percent to 235,459. The volume of freight flown increased by 1.5 percent to 543 493 tons in the same period. In 2016 the airport went through a minor crisis. The reason was a terrorist attack in March when two bombs exploded in the departure lounge. The airport was then completely closed for three weeks. Due to the necessary work, it took until mid-June until the airport was able to work at full capacity again.

During this time, only 40 to 50 percent of the flights were handled. Check-in facilities were temporarily installed in a large tent and other parts of the building were used for this. “We tried to please all airlines,” recalls Léon Verhallen. “We made sure that every airline could handle at least one daily flight.” Exception: Brussels Airlines. The home carrier had priority. “That might sound strange at first,” says Verhallen. “But the airline has its home base here. If the airline hadn't been able to operate flights for six weeks, that would have been the end for the company.

And in retrospect, all the airlines gave us very positive feedback. There was also understanding for the preferential treatment given by Brussels Airlines. ”It wasn't the only break-in that the airport had to cope with. It was really bad shortly after the turn of the millennium. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, air traffic worldwide fell into a crisis - the airline Sabena, the forerunner of Brussels Airlines, had to file for bankruptcy. Since the airline had its main hub in Brussels, the airport lost a third of its traffic in one fell swoop.

Only in 2004 did the situation at the airport stabilize again. That year the airport was privatized. One of the measures that resulted from this: the development of a marketing strategy that resulted in a much more active approach to the airlines than in the time before. Today the airport offers 213 passenger destinations and 35 freight-only connections. 50 percent of passengers are on holiday, 30 percent are on business and 20 percent are grouped under the category Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR), i.e. passengers who visit friends and relatives.

Connections all over the world

Most of them come from Africa. 18 percent of passengers are transferring passengers. When passengers check in in Brussels, they do so in the single, very clearly arranged terminal. It has two so-called piers: A serves passengers flying under the Schengen Agreement. Non-Schengen passengers are handled in Pier B. There are a total of 57 finger gates and 22 gates from which passengers are brought to the aircraft by buses. There are also four gates where passengers walk to the machines. They were set up for Ryanair and Easyjet, among others.

The security area is a specialty. It has 25 clearance lanes in one place, making it the largest in Europe. Another unusual feature: while waiting for the security checks, passengers have an unobstructed view of the aircraft and the apron outside the hall. The handling in Brussels is very effective. While passengers in Frankfurt need up to 60 minutes for security checks during rush hour, it is significantly less in Brussels. “We measure the time that the passenger spends in the security check. It is a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes, ”explains Verhallen. As in all major airports in the world, there are also numerous shopping opportunities in Brussels.

There are numerous bus connections and a train station under the terminal for connections to the city and the surrounding countryside. If you come by car, you can park your vehicle in one of the 12,000 parking spaces. Cargo handling is an important business area. Brussels is one of the largest cargo airports in Europe. A third of the tonnage is carried as belly capacity in the holds of passenger aircraft. A third is flown by courier and express services and another third is carried by pure cargo airlines. These include Asiana Cargo, Aerologic, Qatar Airways Cargo and Latam Cargo.

The courier and express service DHL operates a hub at the airport. The flights are handled on three runways. Up to 74 flight movements per hour can take place on it. The airport has a total capacity of up to 34 million passengers. It should increase in the long term. For the future, the airport has developed a long-term development concept called Vision 2040. It assumes that the airport will handle 40 million passengers by 2040. There are said to be 315,000 flight movements. The three runways can then handle 93 flight movements per hour. After an initial development step, the airport wants to increase the number of take-offs and landings to 84 as early as 2025.

More flights by 2040

The larger passenger capacity is to be made possible by numerous structural measures. For example in the area of ​​the passenger building: In addition to the existing Pier A and B, the terminal is to have Pier A West with 23 additional gates by 2025. Pier C with further gates should then be completed by 2035. There are also new hotels and office buildings. An important aspect of the expansion concerns the airport's runway system. There are three slopes in Brussels; two of them run parallel. These are the "07L / 25R" and the "07R / 25L". The third runway with north-south direction is the "01/19".

In normal operation, the "25R" and "25L" are used for landings and the "25R" for take-offs. Alternatively, take-offs can be carried out on the "07L" and "07R" and landings on the "01". The increase in flight movements to 84 by 2025 will be possible through various measures. To this end, new approach procedures are to be developed and introduced and additional taxiways are to be built at the same time. As a result, aircraft can also take off on runway 19 and land on runways 07L and 07R. There are various plans for the planned increase in capacity to 93 flight movements after 2025.

To make this possible, the airport had initially considered building a fourth runway, but rejected this idea again. Instead, two variants are now being discussed. Both include structural changes to the "07R / 25L", which is the southern of the two parallel slopes. Here, the taxiway has not yet been expanded to the end of the runway, so that the aircraft have to taxi in a north-easterly direction when taking off on the "25L" to the end of the runway, where they then turn around to take off in a south-westerly direction. The first expansion variant provides for an extension of the taxiway to the end of the runway so that the aircraft can taxi over the taxiway onto the runway, which makes the higher number of take-offs per hour possible.

In the second variant, the "07R / 25L" would be expanded a total of 900 meters to the east and the parallel taxiway would be extended at the same time. The airport has not yet made a decision between the options. And what about the future connections that start from Zaventem into the world? Léon Verhallen has clear ideas about this. The destination moon is of course not included. However, there are a number of very attractive long-haul destinations on his wish list. These include Houston and the west coast of the US, São Paulo, Johannesburg, Seoul and Manila in Asia.

Text: Frank Littek, AERO INTERNATIONAL 4/2019