Brussels Airlines boldy goes where others fear to fly

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Brussels Airlines Cargo is winning plaudits from world health and aid agencies for its response to the ongoing Ebola epidemic, which continues to plague West Africa. While other carriers withdrew or redirected flights, the Belgian national carrier, Brussels Airlines, has maintained a full schedule, particularly to the worst-hit countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

As a result, the airline’s cargo division, Brussels Airlines Cargo, has seen unprecedented demand. Its Brussels hub has become a major feed point out of Europe for the flow of medical supplies and other relief goods. Although much of the belly-hold capacity was withdrawn from these markets by other airlines, some main-deck capacity has been maintained by carriers such as Cargolux and Lufthansa Cargo. But this has not been enough to relieve the pressure on Brussels Airlines Cargo, which operates A330-300/200 aircraft on its African routes.

It has left the airline little option but to charter in its own main-deck capacity to ease the pressure on its Brussels hub. MD-11F capacity has been accessed using neighboring Liege airport in Belgium to facilitate these flights.

The decision by Brussels Airlines not to desert its single most important long-haul market at its time of greatest need has come at some cost to the carrier. It has had to bring in extra staff to screen passengers departing the worst-affected countries. Crew changes have been adjusted to avoid overnight stops in high-risk countries.

Some of these additional costs have been recovered by increasing cargo rates on certain routes to West Africa, generated by the high demand for lift. But the efforts of Brussels Airlines and Brussels Airlines Cargo are seen as a genuine humanitarian gesture to maintain faith with its local market. Nonetheless, the carrier is projecting a strong financial return when it posts its annual results in March, with cargo volumes expected to be well in excess of the 27,000 tonnes uplifted in 2013.

Not that Brussels Airlines Cargo is badly in need of a fix to bolster its cargo revenue returns. Load factors on southbound African services regularly exceed 90 percent. On northbound routes, a now-year-round demand for perishables, such as pineapple and mango for the European market, ensures load factors of over 70 percent. The only constraint on growth appears to be the belly-hold capacity available to Brussels Airlines Cargo. The airline’s long-haul fleet-mix of three A330-200s and five A330-300s has a capacity limitation in the range of 10 to 12 tonnes per flight.

The airline is expected to increase capacity in the medium term if, as hinted, it leases further long-haul aircraft.

But if there is one thing Brussels Airlines has been careful to do, it is not to over-reach. It is a bitter lesson learned from the bankruptcy of the former Belgian national carrier Sabena in 2001. The new national carrier of today, launched by a group of 40 Belgian investors, emerged initially as SN Brussels Airlines in 2002. By 2006 it changed its name to Brussels Airlines, after the merger with Brussels-based short-haul European carrier Virgin Express.

Perhaps the greatest fillip the carrier received was the acquisition of a 45 percent stake in the airline by Lufthansa in 2009, paving the way for the Belgian flag carrier to join the Star Alliance. The German carrier has had the opportunity to take up the remaining 55 percent since 2011, but has thus far not exercised that option.

Even so, the reincarnation of the Belgian carrier is still very much about the ghost of Sabena and the legacy of its African network, with the new carrier even adopting the IATA code of its predecessor.

At its inception, the new airline was launched with about half of its staff drawn from the ranks of Sabena. Importantly, this included many outstation managers with vital knowledge and expertise of the African market, such as Brussels Airlines Cargo’s incumbent cargo boss Herman Hoornaert.

Before taking on his current role in 2011, Hoornaert headed up the airline’s cargo sales operation in Africa. It’s a unique archive of market knowledge, which has enabled the airline to fully recover the presence in the African market of its luckless predecessor and grow it further to the 19 points served today.

Brussels Airlines Cargo, though, may be said to have a somewhat perverse approach to marketing its services. In normal circumstances an airline would expect to take charge of cargo sales in its home market and resort to using a general sales agent (GSA) in its outstations. Brussels Airlines Cargo has reversed that strategy. It has taken the decision to outsource sales in its home European market to a GSA, while in Africa it has retained responsibility for marketing nearly all inbound capacity, with a couple of GSA exceptions.

The GSA responsibility in Europe has been handed over to ECS Globe Air Cargo, part of the French-owned ECS Group. In the case of the airline’s only other long-haul services, to New York and seasonally to Washington, the GSA option has been taken in both directions, which again has been provided by ECS Global Air Cargo. The U.S. market benefits from a high demand for pharma traffic out of Brussels.

Brussels Airlines Cargo admits it was a big ask – and risk – for both parties to hand over the entire belly-hold capacity to a single GSA in Europe. It is a risk, though, which has paid dividends for both parties and resulted in an even closer working partnership.

Being largely responsible for its own cargo sales in the African market has helped Brussels Airlines Cargo develop its “Fresh to Shelf” product to ensure perishables are delivered to European markets in prime condition via its Brussels hub. The airline works closely with major African exporters and European wholesalers, recognizing that margins are tight, so it rarely imposes fuel surcharges on this traffic.

But this has not stopped other predator carriers, notably from the Arabian Gulf, from trying to undercut Brussels. Brussels Airlines Cargo has held its ground on price, the company reports. Small consolation when considering the health crisis in the West Africa market. –Roger Turney; Photo by Martin Visser


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