Brussels Airlines takes advantage of health crisis to outdo competitors in Africa

By Baudelaire Mieu
Posted on Tuesday, 18 January 2022 10:46, updated on Wednesday, 19 January 2022 14:06

Brussels Airlines' fleet of nine Airbus 330s will be expanded by a ninth aircraft in June. © Aero Pixels/CC/WikimediaCommons

After relaunching its flights on the continent in June 2020, Brussels Airlines is making an effort to resist the crisis and beat out its competitors, especially Air France.

“The recovery was rather slow from June 2020 onwards, but in 2021 there was a clear improvement and we hope this will continue in 2022.” Such is the African battle plan of Philippe Saeys-Desmedt, vice-president in charge of sales for sub-Saharan Africa at Lufthansa, Brussels Airlines’ parent company since the end of 2016.

“Our African customers have been the most resilient of all our services worldwide,” says the manager, who has been at the helm of the carrier since the 1990s and is now leading a company that has suffered from the pandemic.

Increased flights

Brussels Airlines recorded a 45% drop in turnover during the first half of 2021, compared to the same period last year. Results for the whole of 2021 are not yet available. Over the same period, the occupancy rate decreased by 11.7 percentage points to 60.7%. In 2020, the company had a turnover of €414m ($472m), down 72% compared to 2019 (when it was €1.47bn).

African routes (17 destinations) account for more than 80% of Brussels Airlines’ long-haul network and a third of its turnover. In 2018, a successful year, the airline carried 1.2 million passengers to Africa, still less than Air France.

To encourage the anticipated rebound this year, Brussels Airlines, which had to reduce its intercontinental fleet from 10 to eight aircraft in 2020, will get one aircraft back, a ninth Airbus A330, from June. The company operates its flights on the continent with only one type of aircraft, A330-300s, to facilitate maintenance.

This new aircraft will enable it to reopen two services in the sub-Saharan region, which had been suspended due to the health crisis: Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Conakry in Guinea, which will be served three times a week.

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At the same time, the frequency of flights to five destinations in West and East Africa will increase. Banjul (where Air France opened a route last November), Lomé, Monrovia and Kigali will benefit from five weekly flights, while the flight to Entebbe will be daily.

To manage the continent’s activity, the carrier has established six hubs – Abidjan, Dakar, Nairobi, Lagos, Douala and Johannesburg – which are linked to the network of two other airlines integrated into the Lufthansa group, Swiss and Austrian Airlines. The various zones are managed by general managers, all of whom are based in Brussels, which remains the African hub.

The company intends to continue to position itself strategically in all market segments. Although the so-called VFR (Visit Friends Relatives) segment is at the heart of the reconquest plan, new premium fare offers, in particular business cabins fitted out like those of some competitors, have been proposed.

Connections to New York

The cargo business, operated by the parent company Lufthansa and largely maintained during the period, will remain crucial in 2022. The business and economy sectors of Kinshasa, the airline’s flagship destination, have recovered, as have purely tourist destinations in Southern Africa, such as Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Mombasa in Kenya, and Zanzibar in Tanzania.

In addition, new daily flights from Brussels to New York (as opposed to four per week in the past) should make it possible to accommodate passengers from West Africa who do not have direct connections to the US.

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