Brussels Airport bounced back in style in 2017, handling an all-time high of 24.8 million passengers and 536,000 tonnes of cargo as it continued to grow its long-haul network and cement its status as the third biggest Star Alliance transfer hub on the planet.
And the upward trajectory has continued this year, with a record 5.2 million passengers (+5.1%) passing through Brussels Airport (BRU) in the first quarter of 2018 to ensure that it is on target to smash the 25mppa barrier for the first time.
Last year’s success was particularly gratifying for the airport as it followed one of the most difficult years in its history when terrorists attacked BRU on March 22, 2016.
“The events of that day made it a hard year for everyone, but we always knew that thanks to the strength and power of all airport staff, the airport would bounce back, and the speed of the traffic recovery pays testimony to that,” enthuses airport CEO, Arnaud Feist.
“Traffic growth at the airport in the last few years has actually been quite unbelievable, and we now handle nearly eight million more passengers than we did in 2010 and are served by many more airlines offering more long-haul routes than ever before.”
In terms of BRU development, Feist believes that the airport hasn’t looked back since it was privatised in 2005 and Brussels Airport Company, in which the government still holds a 25% stake, brought a new way of doing business to the table.
He says that the company’s strategy, which it has fine-tuned over the past eight years, is based on a passenger focused philosophy and the determination to create a gateway that both travellers and airlines want to use.
“We are ambitious, and the combination of our passenger centric strategy, the development of our long-haul network and investment in the airport’s infrastructure have helped change people’s perceptions of Brussels Airport,” says Feist.
“Our focus today is very much on attracting long-haul airlines and developing our route network together with our home carrier, Brussels Airlines, to grow our status as a Star Alliance hub.”
Feist admits that Brussels Airlines joining Star Alliance was “a game changer” for the airport as it proved the catalyst for its transformation from a primarily O&D airport into a transfer hub for the carrier and fellow members of the world’s biggest airline group.
Today 17 members of Star Alliance serve BRU ensuring that it is possible to catch direct connections through Brussels to destinations as far afield as Bangkok, Chicago, Dubai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai and Washington DC.
“We are the most western Star Alliance hub in Europe and are determined to keep growing as a Star Alliance airport as this is the way forward for us,” comments Feist.
Transfer passengers currently account for close to 20% of the traffic at BRU and O&D for the remainder. And both grew significantly last year, transfer numbers by 9.9% and O&D by 15%, and Feist expects similar good figures in 2018.
New non-stop long-haul routes last year included Shanghai (Hainan Airlines), Mumbai (Brussels Airlines) and Tehran (Qeshm Air) while Delta re-launched its Atlanta–Brussels service a year after the terrorist attack.
And they have been joined by 11 new routes this year that include Aruba and Curaçao in the Caribbean and Hong Kong and Shenzhen in China.
Shenzhen is the third Chinese city served by Hainan Airlines from BRU after Beijing and Shanghai, while Cathay Pacific launched its first ever service to Brussels, four weekly A350 flights from Hong Kong, on March 25.
Talking about the new Chinese routes, Feist called the launch of the first non-stop Cathay Pacific flights to BRU a “new milestone for Brussels Airport”, noting that all three new destinations were invaluable additions for the gateway.
“The Chinese market is a very important one for us as it is one of the fastest growing markets in the world and offers huge potential,” enthuses Feist. “Around seven million Chinese visit Europe each year and this number will only grow.”
But if you think that expanding its route network has been easy for BRU, think again. Indeed, Feist is quick to point out that the airport’s dedicated aviation marketing team has worked wonders to develop today’s long-haul network of 189 weekly flights to 18 destinations in Africa, 11 in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, and 15 in the Americas.
“Make no mistake about it, we had to go and get these airlines and new routes. Luckily, we have a top aviation marketing team who are very proactive in their approach to route development and are in constant dialogue with the airlines,” says Feist.
The number of new destinations introduced in the last two years and BRU’s recent triumph in the Routes Europe 2018 Marketing Awards – the third time it has won the accolade – arguably confirm Feist’s belief about the abilities of his aviation marketing team.
Brussels Airlines and the Star Alliance carriers presently account for 55% of the traffic at BRU, with the former emerging as a strong successor to former national flag carrier, Sabena, particularly over the last five years.
Can you compare the two airlines? “I don’t think so,” says Feist. “Sabena, being state-owned, had a very wide long-haul network, but the problem was that it wasn’t profitable. Brussels Airlines on the other hand is profitable, and after slowly building up its European route network and building on the African routes it in a way inherited from Sabena, has started to develop a long-haul network.
“It, however, has gone about this in a very different way to Sabena as it has only introduced services that are profitable. As a result of its commercially driven expansion, Brussels Airlines has brought stability and a new dynamism to the market.
“On its own, it will never be able to replicate the number of long haul destinations served by Sabena in the 1970s and 1980s, but it can more than match it with the Star Alliance.”
The target is for transfer traffic to eventually account for 25% of BRU’s traffic, and although this may still be a few years away, Feist believes that it is achievable within the next five to seven years.
With forecasts predicting that passenger numbers will reach around 40 million per annum by 2040, the airport is more than aware of the need to enhance its capacity to keep up with demand.
Plans for a new Pier A West by 2023/24 and another one (Pier C) in the longer time – probably around 2035 although its exact timing is likely to be decided by demand – are outlined in the airport’s Strategic Vision 2040.
The airport is also looking at the possibility of extending one of its parallel runways, although Feist believes that future airfield capacity won’t be an issue if advances in navigational aids, extending existing taxiways, and technology driven improvements to today’s air traffic processes and produces can raise BRU’s airfield capacity from 74 to 93 aircraft movements per hour.
He is also confident that the airport will be helped by the introduction of larger capacity aircraft in the years ahead that will effectively allow BRU to nearly double its passenger numbers and increase its cargo volumes by a third over the next 20 years while still handling fewer air traffic movements than in 2000.
Feist, who remarks that BRU’s airfield and the existing piers do get “quite busy” during today’s busy peak periods, explains: “The average aircraft size is growing at this airport and will continue to grow slightly for a while as more aircraft the size of B787 and A350 are introduced here.
“In 2000, we had an average of 77 passengers per flight. Today the figure is 124, which is due to bigger aircraft and higher load factors. Although we are A380 compliant, we don’t currently have regular A380 flights, but planes like the B787, A350 and the future A321LR are great for an airport like ours as it allows airlines to operate long-haul flights for 240 to 350 passengers instead of 400 to 500.
“A fourth runway is not on the agenda because of the adverse environmental impact it would have on local residents. We therefore have other solutions to increase airfield capacity.”
The airport harbours plans to further develop its cargo facilities (Brucargo zone) into a top-tier European logistics centre to support key sectors of the economy, such as the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Part of these plans includes Brussels Airport Company investing €100 million on the development of new logistics buildings for Kuehne + Nagel, Dnata and WFS.
It is also working with national rail operator, NMBS/SNCB and regional transport companies De Lijn and MIVB/STIB to add new rail, bus and tramway connections that will further strengthen BRU as a truly multi-modal hub in the next decade.
The goal is in line with its aim of getting 50% of all staff and passengers to use public transport or cycle to the airport by 2040.
And it wants to create an Airport Business District, an airport city type development on BRU’s 1,250-hectare site by building the offices, hotels and other facilities that will confirm the airport’s ranking as one of most important business centres in Belgium.
The plan is already taking shape. Deloitte moved into premises in the newly redeveloped Gateway Building in 2017 and others, such as KPMG, Microsoft, Tribes, Redevco and Etex will move into another complex, called the PassPort building, later this year.
It is estimated that these ongoing developments and being able to handle 40 million passengers per annum by 2040 will raise the number of direct and indirectly related airport jobs from 60,000 today to 120,000 in 20 years.
If that isn’t enough to get the locals on board with its Strategic Vision 2040, the gateway has created Forum 2040 to maintain an open dialogue about its expansion plans with its neighbours, local communities, municipalities, companies, unions and other stakeholders.
Feist reveals this is because BRU wants to be as open and transparent about its plans as possible as making them become a reality will be a win-win situation for the airport, region and the whole of the country.
The airport’s commitment to customer service has led to the creation of a Passenger Experience department, which Feist says is designed to take care of passengers from A to Z, or in other words, from the beginning to the end of their journey through the airport.
This new department is led by a manager whose sole responsibility is the passenger experience at BRU, a role that covers every possible touchpoint at the airport from car parking and the cleanliness of toilets and check-in screens to the length of security queues and the quality of service offered in shops and F&B outlets.
And an example of how seriously the airport takes customer service is that one of his KPIs is to oversee an increase in BRU’s quarterly scores in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction surveys.
“We are very serious when we say that we want to make a difference for the passenger, and have aligned our organisation to achieve this goal, because we think that the delivery of excellent customer service is key to our future success, particularly when it comes to attracting transfer passengers,” says Feist.
The 2015 opening of the ‘Connector’ building between the terminal and former midfield Pier A, making BRU much easier to use, has certainly helped boost customer satisfaction levels.
As have a number of IT led projects and innovative new retail/F&B outlets designed to enhance the airport experience of passengers.
Feist cites BRU’s airport App, which helps passengers throughout their airport journey; Bruce the robot who interacts with visitors and helps them navigate the airport; and 24/7 communication with travellers via chatbot and other social media channels as examples of how the airport has embraced technology.
The new technology hasn’t come at the expense of the personal touch, however, as Feist says that unlike at some other airports, passengers won’t struggle to find staff willing to help them at BRU.
“Have we lost sight of the personal touch at BRU? No, quite the contrary, actually, as we have increased the presence of staff throughout the airport to help people who might need assistance and prefer speaking to a human being,” comments Feist.
“We believe that we cater to all through a combination of automated technology for those that want to use it and staff on hand to help others, who are perhaps not familiar with the airport and need some assistance.
“We are actually getting more of the second group of customers these days as we grow as a transfer hub.”
Unique retail/F&B outlets like ‘The Belgian Chocolate House’ – BRU claims to be the largest chocolate shop in the world selling 1.5 kilos of the confectionary every minute – and restaurants serving typical Belgian foods and beers have also proved popular with passengers as have other sense of place features such as the iconic Tintin rocket in the Connector building.
Another winner in terms of customer service has been the introduction of new colour coded signs for transfer passengers, who now just have to follow the red signs to their next connection.
“Simple things can make such a big difference,” muses Feist, who notes that BRU introduced the new wayfinding system this year after listening to passengers, and the result had been soaring ASQ scores from transiting passengers.
The airport has undertaken a number of environmental initiatives in recent years that have included putting up solar panels, switching to alternative energy sources wherever possible and investing in vehicles that are powered by less conventional fuels such as CNG.
As part of its sustainability strategy, Brussels Airport came up with the plan to attain carbon neutrality by the end of 2018, and Feist is in no doubt that it will achieve its goal.
“We will do this and maybe sooner than you think,” he teases, suggesting that there could be some news at the upcoming joint ACI Europe/ACI World Annual Conference and Exhibition in Brussels this June.
“You’ll have to wait and see about that, but what I can say is that sustainability is a key component of our business strategy, and as such becoming carbon neutral is very important. In fact, achieving carbon neutrality isn’t an ambition, it’s a requirement.”
The airport family
Feist remains fiercely proud of how airport staff responded to the horrific attack on BRU in 2016, which he says saw the very worst of mankind in terms of the terrorist’s actions and the very best in terms of how the ‘airport family’ all pulled together as one in a time of great adversity.
“The solidarity in the aftermath of the attack was immediate and impressive. People helped each other out and some even put their own lives at risk by going to save others in the terminal,” says Feist.
“Then going forward, the airport community acted like one family, working all day and night to rebuild and re-open the airport, which we achieved within seven days of the tragedy. Everyone was involved. All companies, all stakeholders and all staff. It really showed me what people can achieve together if they are united and have one common goal.”
And he says that the feeling of togetherness and being able to count on your colleagues to help you remains to this day.
“The relationship between all airport staff from management to people on the floor is different today than two year ago,” says BRU’s CEO. “We are closer because what we’ve been through and you can see the difference every day in the way that people talk to each other and work together.”