A light and sound show over Brussels Grand Place and a lavish party in the reception rooms of Brussels City Hall welcomed the official entry of Brussels Airlines in Star Alliance, the world’s leading global airline alliance. Brussels Airlines became the 26th member and “its integration was exceptionally smooth and rapid” according to Jan Albrecht, the alliance CEO.
Brussels Airlines’ application has, in fact, taken less than a year to become reality. Strategically, the integration of Brussels Airlines – of which 45 percent of its capital has been under control by Lufthansa since June 2009 – allows the alliance to bite into positions held by Skyteam until now. With Brussels Airlines into the fold, Star Alliance now serves more than 1,000 destinations in 170 countries, operating more than 19,500 flights a day, employing over 400,000 people.
“Our biggest challenge for Brussels Airlines was to find our place within the multi-hubs system of Star Alliance in Europe. However, I consider Brussels as an unknown diamond in [the] European network,” explained Bernard Gustin, co-CEO of Brussels Airlines. “When looking at the European map, Star Alliance looked underrepresented in western Europe as Skyteam controls tightly both Amsterdam and Paris CDG, and Oneworld has a strong presence in London Heathrow.”
In 2008, Brussels Airlines carried over 5.5 million passengers on a fleet of 51 aircraft. However, the airline’s management estimates that Brussels Airlines’ integration into Star Alliance could help passenger traffic to grow by 10 percent over the next two years. The new member brings a network of 60 destinations to Star Alliance, including many exclusive destinations located in Africa.
“We traditionally have a long-lasting relationship with Africa that we have been flying for 70 years. Thanks to our perfect positioning in the heart of Europe and our unique African network of 14 destinations, we can turn Brussels into a major gateway for Star Alliance airlines from the world to Africa,” explained Gustin. Prior to the collapse of Sabena in 2002, Brussels Airport used to welcome over 22 million passengers with transit passengers accounting for 25-35 percent of total traffic. In 2008, Brussels airport welcomed only 18.2 million passengers with transfer passengers representing only 10 p0ercent of total traffic.
“After the collapse of Sabena in 2002, we decided to only concentrate on point-to-point traffic, especially to Europe and Africa. As we are financially in a better position, we are now looking to be more aggressive to build up our network and connections,” said Gustin. Brussels Airlines will continue to build up its African and European network. “We are seriously looking to fly again to two destinations in the United States, most probably Kennedy Airport, as well as Boston or Chicago. But nothing has been yet officially concretized, especially as long as the dollar will remain extremely low. But flying ourselves to the USA would definitely be an important step to strengthen our hub competitiveness,” he added.
The most visible effect of Brussels Airlines’ integration is a multiplication of new flights and frequencies by Star Alliance partners for the next summer. Air Canada will start a daily Brussels-Montreal/Toronto flight, United Airlines will fly to Chicago, and Blue 1 will launch non-stop services to Helsinki. “We are still missing a connection to Asia,” estimated Leon Verhallen, head of airlines development at Brussels Airport. But the airport authority remains extremely upbeat by Brussels Airlines’ integration into the Alliance.
“We expect that transfer traffic should represent 20 percent of total passengers output in two or three years’ time. We can’t comment about total passengers forecast, but Brussels airport should grow over the European average,” said Verhallen.
The future looks bright as Brussels Airport will be connected by a high-speed train link to northern Belgium and the Netherlands. “With the new rail link passing through the airport, we will enlarge our catchment area by adding millions of additional potential travellers,” added Verhallen and maybe to take away passengers from Paris and Amsterdam to entice them to fly out of Brussels.