Q&A: Heart in Africa

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Thanks to its predecessor Sabena, Brussels Airlines has a rich history on the African continent. So, Business Traveller Africa’s Ramsey Qubein sat down with Vice-President of Sales Africa Herman Carpentier, to talk about the future of the airline, and why it still has such close ties to the African continent.

You serve African destinations such as Kinshasa, Bujumbura, Banjul and Freetown, that many other airlines have shied away from? Why?  

As a result of over 80 years of Africa experience, we understand the market and have a lot of operational and commercial expertise. That is necessary in order to offer a good product in difficult operational environments. Challenges include airport infrastructure, availability of jet fuel, airport security and handling material, and that is not to mention the often economic and political instability.

Tell us about your investment in your Airbus A-330 product.

We invested 30 million euros in our new long-haul product. We equipped our fleet with flat-beds in Business Class, installed the latest generation of ergonomic seats in Economy, introduced a revolutionary entertainment system, and installed mood lights, new toilets and lavatory fixtures.

The growth of the Middle East’s top carriers is one of the topical points in world aviation. How do you compete with these airlines?

Connecting at Brussels Airport is very easy, as our Africa flights leave from the same terminal as our European and US flights. Walking distance is limited to a maximum of 10 minutes and the transfer process is very smooth. We also operate all of our African flights with spacious wide-body aircraft, which our competitors do not do on certain flights. Our flights are timed to maximise connections across Europe, and these onward flights are much shorter when changing planes in the heart of Europe, rather than in the Middle East. Brussels Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance, which is the largest and most comprehensive in the world, adding to the connection opportunities and loyalty programme benefits.

You have an innovative city check-in feature in many African cities. What does this involve?

We were an industry pioneer with city check-in on the continent. Seven years ago, we launched this service in Kinshasa. Passengers are invited to check in on the day of their flight in our town office. They can leave their luggage there without having to take it to the airport themselves, and they can have their boarding pass right away. Passengers who make use of this service save a lot of time at the airport and can avoid the typical hassle of long lines. We also offer this service now in Kigali, Monrovia, Conakry and Freetown.

Any particular reason why you don’t fly to Johannesburg, Cairo, or Lagos – three of Africa’s largest cities?

Never say never, but today we still focus on other market priorities. However, we continue to study and analyse the market potential and I wouldn’t rule out us entering some of these markets one day. We currently offer very good connections to Johannesburg via our partners Lufthansa and Swiss. We even have a codeshare with Lufthansa, which serves Lagos and Cairo. Thanks to our Star Alliance partner EgyptAir, with whom we also have a codeshare partnership, there is no market need for additional scheduled services of Brussels Airlines to Cairo. We also operate charter flights to Egypt on behalf of tour operators to Egyptian holiday destinations – Taba and Hurghada – on a weekly basis.

Are there any unserved markets on your radar in Africa, like Bangui (CAR), Brazzaville (Congo) or N’Djamena (Chad)?

We are almost permanently evaluating the potential of new destinations in Africa. Back in 2002, when Brussels Airlines was created, we started with 14 markets. Now we have 19 destinations. This indicates that we launch new routes every time that we are convinced of the potential and the network contribution of a new destination. Another part of our strategy is that we increase frequencies on already existing routes. Our business plan foresees that we will continue to invest in new routes that link Brussels Airport with Africa and the US.

What sets you apart from other European carriers?

Our heart for Africa. The continent is the second home of Brussels Airlines. For some other larger carriers, Africa is just one of the continents they operate to, but for us, three quarters of our long-haul fleet operates to Africa. Our local staff has built a very good relationship with many clients. Also, transferring via Brussels is easy, with a short minimum connection time, smooth border control procedures, and short walking distances between the gates.