Brussels Airlines CEO Bernard Gustin tells Graham Newton that Europe must strive for a more audacious aviation policy if it is to continue a leadership role in the industry


Are you happy with the airline’s performance in 2017?

It was a year of recovery after the Brussels Airport attack in 2016. The market is strong again and both business and leisure travel have returned to pre-attack levels.

Commercially, it has been a satisfying year. We are back to the double-digit growth that saw the airline have a record year in 2015.

We expect figures to show that we have flown up to nine million passengers in 2017, up from five million just five years ago.

We added Mumbai to our network, our first steps into the Asian market

Considering the terrorist attack, this is a great achievement. We also have the “grand slam” of low-cost carriers in the market. All the major LCCs are here.

There were some structural changes. The last AVRO has left the fleet and we are now focused on the Airbus A320 family. We added Mumbai to our network, our first steps into the Asian market.

That positions us not only towards customers on a new continent but also in new sectors such as the diamond market. Mumbai really complements our network.

It means a lot of seats have been added to our capacity, but our load factor has continued to increase nonetheless. The constant challenge, of course, is to translate that into yield. Costs must be kept under control.

What are the plans going forward?

We have taken over flights for Thomas Cook Belgium. So, in 2018 we expect to fly one million more passengers as we add 26 new destinations to our network.

It is a very specific market segment, which will be a challenge. And the competition will not rest while we try to meet this challenge.

Our success will depend on consolidating the business model we have developed over the past few years. Brussels Airlines is a hybrid model.

Brussels Airlines brings the speed, agility and culture of a small-medium enterprise while Lufthansa is the tiger in the engine

We don’t want passengers having to choose between a good price and good service. Our vision is “no compromise.” Being part of the Lufthansa Group enables this vision.

Brussels Airlines brings the speed, agility and culture of a small-medium enterprise while Lufthansa is the tiger in the engine.

Our culture, our people, are the vital ingredient, however. The airline ticket is a fast-moving consumer good. And aircraft are not differentiators from a passenger point of view. The cabin, the lighting, the in-flight entertainment may all be excellent.

But, it is people that make the difference. The airline strategy means nothing if one of your crew is having a bad day and a good customer has a bad day as a result. More aircraft, more products, more markets—they all become worthless.

The aim is to bring something new to the market and I think we are doing that. Our focused hub approach is working.

Not only do we have Brussels as a home market, but we are also leaders in Africa. Leadership is not about size.

Think about how we continued to fly to West Africa during the Ebola crisis. We understood what the market needed.

And for our US routes, we will have pre-clearance facilities from 2018. We will also start to convert the potential of India into profitability. 

What were the lessons learned about security following the 2016 incident at Brussels Airport?

The 22 March 2016 terrorism attack could have happened at any airport, station or arena where there are large groups of people. The security in place wasn’t wrong. Unfortunately, though, zero risk doesn’t exist.

So, it is about reinforcing what was already in place and questioning everything you do every day. There have been some changes.

The curb in front of the terminal isn’t used and heightened behavior screening by trained staff is in place though passengers will not necessarily notice that.

But this still doesn’t get us to zero risk. We have to continue to live.

And what lessons did the airline learn about business continuity and crisis communications?

The customer-focused culture we had been developing since 2012 became a reality in March 2016. Staff focused on implementation and not on questioning the measures in place. That is important.

But in a situation like this, it was not just dealing with customers. Brussels Airlines had 70 staff affected by the attack and four of our people were seriously injured. An airline must remember that this might be part of the equation too. We have a duty to our staff.

The first day wasn’t perfect. We had some long queues as some 15,000 customers were due to fly. But we didn’t even have an airport.

The customers could see we were trying though and we did deal with everybody. 

Can good security be balanced with a better passenger experience?

It can never be a trade-off. It is the same as safety. Security can’t be compromised just so passengers can get through the airport five minutes faster. Technology will enable a better balance though.

Brussels Airport is investing in biometrics, for example. This will help smooth the process. And you do get more efficient.

The first week after the attack, the checking and screening as people entered the airport was obvious. Now, as I mentioned, this isn’t the case. The screening is still there but it is not delaying anybody.

Is operating in Africa getting any easier in terms of infrastructure and costs?

There is a real misperception about Africa. Every continent has its problems and challenges. Operating in Europe is not easy either.

The fact is, Africa is moving forward. It is the continent of tomorrow

Brussels Airlines has been flying to Africa for more than 80 years if you count our Sabena heritage, and we have a great deal of experience. The fact is, Africa is moving forward. It is the continent of tomorrow.

A new airport opened in Dakar, Senegal in early December and Brussels Airlines was the first international carrier to land there. The standards there are now at global best practice levels. Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo is another good airport.

A new Star Alliance lounge has just opened there, which Brussels Airlines is operating.

Overall, yes, Africa is a challenge. But it is not alone in that.

What are your thoughts on the EU Aviation Strategy?

As a past President of the Association of European Airlines and being in Brussels means I have developed a good understanding of European politicians.

So, I know it is difficult for them to develop a bold, ambitious vision. But that is exactly what aviation needs. The industry has been first in so many things but both aviation and the politicians forget that. The Aviation Strategy is a first step, but it cannot be the last.

We need to work at three levels. First, there has to be a level playing field within Europe. Social costs for airlines differ from country to country, for example. Airlines can fly to and from any country in the European Union (EU) but have completely different cost bases.

The Single European Sky is the biggest environmental and economic project in Europe, bar none

Second, we need to look at the infrastructure. This is not just airport congestion and charges. I include the Single European Sky. This is the biggest environmental and economic project in Europe, bar none.

Why isn’t this being moved forward? It will generate economic benefits and reduce carbon emissions. But like airports, there continues to be a “not-in-my-backyard” approach. 

Third, we need European champions to move everything forward.

When Brussels Airlines became part of the Lufthansa Group, we had five routes in common with Lufthansa. It took nine months for the approval process.

Consolidation needs to be allowed to happen. It is the best possible way to add value for the European consumer.

Specifically, what about EU261, dealing with passenger rights? Do you agree with the proposed amendments?

All airlines want to provide a perfect service to their customers. And it is right that there is regulation to ensure airlines deliver on their responsibilities.

Our Thomas Cook flights mean we are serving the holiday traveler. These customers are spending a large portion of their money for their vacation and it is our task to ensure they get to where they want to go. We do not take that responsibility lightly.

I am pro-European, but the EU does make life so difficult sometimes

But the regulation must look at this area. An airline cannot be responsible for everything. It is not an insurance company. Sometimes, other players in the supply chain and even external factors like weather are to blame. 

Regulation cannot be set up to encourage claims. It’s like coming out of surgery and the first person to check if you’re okay is not a doctor but a lawyer. That’s not right.

And the regulation must also be proportionate. There is no link between the damage and compensation. I know what irregular operations cost and, believe me, it is why all airlines try to provide that perfect service.

I am pro-European, but the EU does make life so difficult sometimes. You cannot have a dispute over Gibraltar holding up these fundamental issues.

In general, are you optimistic about aviation’s future or do you see constraints on growth in terms of congestion, environmental issues, and terrorism?

I am an optimist. Aviation is not alone in having many challenges.

Many other industries are facing problems. But this is an industry that is growing every year. Once, you asked people if they have ever flown. Now, you ask “how many times a year do you fly?”

I do believe that Europe must get its act together though. In 50 years’ time, do you want major hub airports to be museums because everybody in Europe is flying point-to-point and all the major global hubs are in the Middle East or elsewhere?

How would you explain that missed opportunity when Europe was the leader for so long?