Published in July 2016 issue

Often overshadowed by Europe’s larger airports such as London, Frankfurt, or Amsterdam, Brussels Airport (BRU) was enjoying a moment in the sun before two explosions ravaged its departures hall on March 22, 2016, claiming 32 lives and injuring over 300 people.

By Rohan Anand

Weeks later, BRu remains crippled, but is far from broken. The airport has shown incredible prowess in reinstating its operations and persevering in the face of tragedy.

The weeks and months leading up to March 22, 2016, were a record-breaking start for Brussels Zanventem airport, as it capped off a successful 2015 and excitedly geared up for another milestone year. After having long played second fiddle to competing airports in Europe, BRU had much to celebrate in terms of growth, progress, and innovation.

Among the world’s more recognizable airports, Zaventem was, uncharacteristically, well versed in the cyclical behavior of the global airline industry and the unfavorable impact those cycles have on travel demand. Arguably, it has been one of the European airports most exposed to periods of financial turmoil and operational mishaps. Fifteen years ago, its primary hub carrier, Sabena, collapsed overnight following a post-9/11 bankruptcy filing, still considered to this day to be Belgium’s largest-ever corporate failure. The airline shuttered its global operations and its surviving carrier, Brussels Airlines, started off as a shell of what Sabena had been. Over time, however, Brussels Airlines has slowly backfilled capacity in Sabena’s wake, even maintaining the same IATA code (SN) as its predecessor.

But the late 2000s were no less problematic for BRU airport: Zaventem had been hit hard by the 2008 global financial crisis and by the Eurozone crisis, as Brussels is the designated capital of the European Union. Passenger growth stalled and cargo demand slipped. Factor in certain unforeseen events, such as the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull—an Icelandic volcano the ash cloud of which disrupted flights on continental Europe for weeks—and you will see how BRU has experienced its fair share of rollercoaster moments.

However, with 2015 passenger numbers at BRU tallying to nearly 23.5 million movements—a 47% increase from 2005 and a 38% increase from 2010—it appeared that the challenges of the prior decade were finally coming to an end. Passenger numbers were up 5%, 8%, and 11%, respectively, for the months of December 2015, and January and February 2016. Brussels Airlines remained the predominant carrier at BRU, with roughly a third of local market share, and coexisted well with competing low-cost carriers Vueling (VY) and Ryanair (FR), both of which operate bases in Belgium.

The first quarter of 2016 likely would have been followed by a slight dip in passenger numbers, given that Indian-based Jet Airways (9W) was planning to dismantle its Brussels scissor hub in late March and shift operations to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (AMS) as part of its new joint venture with Delta (DL) and KLM (KL). That would have disconnected BRU from Toronto (YYZ), Newark (EWR), Delhi (DEL), and Mumbai (BOM). However, Brussels Airlines was going to back-fill capacity by adding a nonstop flight to Toronto, while United (UA) would have boosted service to Newark with a second daily flight.

Freight growth, furthermore, had been exceptionally strong for 2015. The airport had lured lucrative service from Asiana (OZ) and Ethiopian (ET) cargo operations to various corners of the world, solidifying BRUs importance as a global shipping and transit point.

In addition, Brussels Airport had much to look forward to in terms of modernizing its passenger facilities to improve customer experience and movement. In 2013, the airport kicked off a €75 million (US$84 million) capital investment plan to increase automation and passenger comfort. A major phase of this development was actually implemented in March 2016, just days before the attacks.

One feature of the airport improvements, thankfully unaffected by the explosions, was the opening of 18 automated border-control gates, designed to allow arriving European Union citizens from non-Schengen countries to proceed through border control more swiftly using digital verification systems. These ‘e-gates’, as they were dubbed, would help to automatically check more than 46,000 passengers daily.

Another component, the new ‘Connector’ link to Pier B, opened on March 17. It improves passenger flow for connecting passengers to non-Schengen destinations and houses upgraded dutyfree shopping areas and restaurants. Other huge plans include a renovation on the 01/19 runway, scheduled to take place between July and September 2016, as well as the construction of a new cycle path to the airport from nearby Leuven, to be completed by 2018.

Even aviation geeks were consulted to provide ideas on how to boost Brussels’ appeal as a more popular airport. In summer 2015, Arnaud Feist, CEO of Brussels Airport Company, launched an initiative to create a more ‘spotterfriendly’ experience for aviation photographers. The airport issued a survey to the public to help improve the infrastructure for spotters, and put out clear communications on ‘dos and don’ts’ for public photographers of aircraft arriving, departing, and taxiing at BRU.

Many spotters would agree that cooperation between the airport authorities and the public is usually more the exception than the norm, especially in the presence of heightened security measures. The spotting example testifies to BRU’s mission to be transparent, creative, and nurturing. It may not be Europe’s most important airport, but it knows that its relevance to the traveling public is large enough that it draws upon its local community to help it provide the best public service it can possibly do.

But the morning of March 22 served as a gut-wrenching reminder that the airline and aviation industry are well acquainted with the impact of global terror. Undeservedly, that morning, Brussels Airport had a brutal awakening that sent its onward and upward streak into a hiatus—at least temporarily.

Even with massive improvements in airport security systems—processes and procedures designed to detect, identify, and thwart public threats before they take place—the sobering reality is that nothing is foolproof.

Media attention has focused on the suspects involved in the attacks and the links to the Paris bombings of November 2015. But, amid the rubble, airline and airport stakeholders have to absorb the devastating effects that acts of terrorism inflict on their businesses and operations over an extended period of time. Brussels Airlines, for instance, has stated that the bombings cost the carrier upwards of $5 million per day when BRU was inoperable, its operations instead being re-routed via Antwerp (ANR), Liege (LGG), Frankfurt (FRA), and Zurich (ZRH).

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However, within weeks, Brussels Airport re-opened for scheduled service, although at significantly reduced levels. By no means was this a small feat, and hats must go off to the personnel that worked around the clock to provide passengers, airlines, and the general public with relevant information and developments as they occurred.

Within four days, a team of engineers, technicians, and independent external experts completed a preliminary analysis of the damage caused by the explosions. Critical to that analysis was the transparency surrounding the areas impacted by the bombings, given that photo evidence showed that the attacks had rendered the departures hall practically unrecognizable. Equally important was confirmation that the building structure was stable and not at risk of collapse. Finally, as conciliation to the victims and their families, the airport provided information about where passengers could collect abandoned luggage, personal items, and the more than 5,000 cars left in the parking areas.

While the departure pier and the new connector were, thankfully, unharmed, the check-in and baggage claim áreas had been destroyed. As a result, the airport had to think of quick and creative solutions to check in passengers and provide luggage claims while facilities were slated to re-open.

Communicating to passengers is always a difficult task when operations are severely reduced, but Brussels Airport was clear that its re-opening depended on satisfying three criteria: 1) meeting all construction and fire safety regulations, 2) completing real-time passenger flow tests to ensure that everything would run smoothly, and 3) receiving the government authorities’ blessing for the security systems implemented.

By March 31, Brussels Airport had received the green light for all three of those conditions. The next step required communicating an actual re-start date to its carriers. Before the attacks, Zaventem airport was able to process approximately 5,000 passenger movements per hour on any given day. However, the provisional infrastructure saw this number reduced to 800-1,000 per hour, approximately 20% of its pre-March 22 levels. Cargo operators, however, were able to resume with minimal impact during this time.

On April 3, 2016, Brussels Airport became operational again. Brussels Airlines became the first carrier to begin operations at its primary base, followed, a few days later, by other European operators such as Lufthansa (LH), KLM, and British Airways (BA). Air Canada (AC) became one of the first intercontinental airlines to re-establish long-haul service to Brussels on April 6, followed by Hainan (HU), Thai (TG), and ANA (NH). Essentially, Brussels Airlines was back to its normal operational schedule by April 9. There will be continued challenges to be borne—and not all carriers are climbing back to BRU at once. American (AA) has withdrawn  its daily service to Philadelphia (PHL) until April 2017, while Delta has cancelled its Atlanta-Brussels flight until March 2017. United has opted not to proceed with its second daily service to Newark.

There have been other setbacks as well. BRU’s air traffic control workers went on strike on April 12 over a retirement dispute, causing dozens of canceled flights. The strike, combined with the increased security measures and the plummeting passenger ticket sales, forced some airlines to postpone service resumption by a few more months.

But none of this was enough to deter BRU from fighting back. Brussels Airlines opened a ‘pre-check’ facility at its cargo terminal, allowing Africa-bound passengers to drop off their luggage the day before their flight. Other airlines set up temporary workstations to enable passengers to print their boarding passes in case they had forgotten their paperwork at home.

BRU has also invested significantly in its website and mobile app to deliver live, up-to-date information to help passengers navigate through the temporary facilities, with categories for those who are arriving, departing, and connecting at BRU. The passenger checklist section provides a succinct, blow-by-blow list of ‘to-dos’ before flying into BRU. In the FAQ section, passengers needing special assistance can find phone numbers and links to BRU airport authorities on Twitter, Facebook, or Email.

Perhaps most significant is the page titled Extend Your Sympathy, which includes a link to the #BrusselsTribute hashtag where users can send personalized messages to the victims’ families. In situations like this, a little can mean a lot.

Last November, the world unified behind Paris after the tragic bombings and shootings took place. It was a devastating year for Europe, and a heart-stopping reminder that life is precios and never to be taken for granted. Right now, Brussels is joining Paris in mourning and in providing the world with a glimpse into how it copes with tragedy.

Though the death toll was smaller in Brussels than it had been in Paris, the gravity of an airport attack triggers a ripple effect that has far-reaching implications. Indeed, tourist numbers in Paris fell substantially in the months following the attacks, notably from Asian countries. However, since the attack at Zaventem, the airline and airport industry has to bear the brunt of the burden. The effects are even more pronounced in a place like Belgium where transport by car or train are easy to access, replacing air transport when fears are heightened.

While Brussels Airport rebuilds, it deserves the full, undivided attention and support of the global travel community. In an era in which it is virtually impossible to become desensitized to the perils of air travel, BRU airport is a shining paradigm of hope and optimism.