Brussels shifts strategy

posted on 5th June 2023
Brussels shifts strategy

With traffic recovering strongly in 2023, Brussels Airport has kicked off a new strategic plan, dubbed Shift 2027. Piet Demunter, Chief Operations Officer, explains the thinking to ARGS Editor Mark Pilling

Mask wearing, social distancing and other aspects of the Covid era may already feel like a distant memory, but the ripple effects continue.
For Brussels Airport Company, the virus understandably had a major impact on its five-year strategy plan that guides its tactical and operational plans, explained Piet Demunter, Chief Operations Officer. “It was clear that it was necessary to rethink our strategy because the post-Covid period is not what we had before,” he said. “We have entered a new world because of so many societal trends which have accelerated due to Corona.”
For instance: “There is homeworking. People are meeting via Zoom and Teams more than before [because they developed the habit during Covid], but also [because of] the element of sustainability which impacts the way people travel or do not travel and choices they make,” said Demunter. On the other hand, the fact that people could not see family, often for several years, has resulted in a significant rise in VFR travel, he added.
The Brussels management team took all these factors into account as it redefined its strategy, launching Shift 2027 in May last year, in a bid to further strengthen its position as a major European hub.
“Shift 2027 was built around the realisation that our core role as an airport is providing those connections into society. That was not new, but we strengthened it around hub performance,” said Demunter.

Three strategic pillars
The term ‘hub performance’ is used by Brussels Airport as the first of three pillars that comprise Shift. For Brussels the primary goal is to provide a high-quality and growing network for passenger and cargo customers. The strength of its network was demonstrated during Covid, for instance: it played a key role as one of the few airports connecting Europe with Africa in that period, and as a pharma hub for vaccine transport, said Demunter.
Alongside better connectivity, Brussels also considers local traffic as part of its hub performance pillar, bringing more passengers to the airport using public transport, including from the Netherlands or northern France. These initiatives not only strengthen the airport’s role as an intermodal hub, but also contribute to its sustainability ambitions.
“The second pillar of our strategy is sustainability, which is for every company in our industry a crucial one and it was already a priority before Corona,” said Demunter. “We have been working on these things for a long time; for instance, we have been carbon neutral for many years, compensating for any of the carbon that we emit.
“But we need to accelerate. We need to do even better and so sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. And it is not just us – ecosystem thinking is important as it is all of us together,” explained Demunter (see box story).

“The third pillar is about diversification,” Demunter went on. “There is a realisation that as a company, and as a community, we have been very much dependent on the aviation side [of the business]. But that was impacted due to Corona, and we almost had no traffic during lockdown, and so it makes you very vulnerable as a company.
“Combine this with the fact that we have an opportunity here land wise,” continued Demunter. Brussels has land available on site for real-estate development in a much bigger way than before. This had started before 2020 but it is being accelerated, with the airport becoming the principal developer. There are already several logistics projects, a hotel and an office building in the works.
Real-estate development for an airport is not new, but Brussels is going a step further than that. “For us it is also about drones,” said Demunter. In March, Brussels announced its intention to take a 30% stake in DronePort, an ecosystem focused on research, innovation, and development in drones and Advanced Air Mobility.
DronePort is located at the former air force base of Sint-Truiden in eastern Belgium and features several partners including the city. In addition, in 2021 Brussels took a stake in SkeyDrone, a pioneer in drone services and drone management systems owned by the Belgian air navigation services provider skeyes.
“It’s a fascinating area and one where there are still many open questions because no one really knows when it’s going to take off and where the possibilities will lead to,” said Demunter. “What we are doing is preparing ourselves with some proofs of concept of having drones not just for passenger operations, but also in logistics or for operational tasks. By being a shareholder in these expert companies, we are making sure we are well positioned to be part of it when it happens.”

Traffic recovery
During the five years of the Shift strategy period up to 2027, Brussels forecasts that it will recover back to its previous traffic peak in 2019 of 26.4 million passengers in 2025.
“We have recovered quite well over the last year, but we certainly see it going further in 2023,” said Demunter. In the first few months of 2023, traffic has been tracking at around 85% of 2019 levels, and this will rise to 90% during the summer.
“The network came back quite nicely, certainly in Europe,” explained Demunter, with leisure markets performing strongly and even surpassing 2019 volumes. However, business traffic on short-haul flights is still behind 2019 levels, he noted.
As already mentioned, the rise in online meetings and the impact of corporations reducing business travel because of sustainability concerns are having an impact. “What we hear from our airlines is that probably 10 to 20% of that traffic is not coming back,” said Demunter.
Alongside its healthy leisure segment, North America has been a booming market for Brussels and its African services have been doing well. “With some of our US carriers we are 20% to 30% above 2019.”
However, “Asia remains difficult,” said Demunter. In May, the only Asian destinations served were Beijing with Hainan Airlines and Tokyo with All Nippon Airways. Neither Hong Kong nor Bangkok services have resumed. “On the direct Asian markets, we still have some network recovery to be done, which is a major focal point for our teams,” he said. The hope is for these routes to return in 2024.
“Of course, there is traffic going through the airport to Asia, but it’s also via the Middle East. We have the three carriers [Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways] with daily to double-daily flights on the Middle East so they take part of this traffic as well.”
This summer Brussels will be connected to some 175 points, about 25 less than 2019, flown by 58 airline customers. Although the full network has yet to be restored there are some important new destinations, including Toronto which will be served by Air Canada five times weekly from August, adding to its existing Montreal service, said Demunter. Another new long-haul addition is Johannesburg, with Air Belgium that started a twice-weekly route in September 2022.
The summer season sees the addition of a handful of new destinations in Europe and North Africa with service to Billund (Denmark), Seville (Spain), Kayseri (Turkey) and Monastir (Tunisia), as well as Bejaia, Constantine, Oran and Tlemcen (Algeria).
The traffic brought by any route is warmly welcomed, but Demunter stressed that “network quality” is also extremely important. “I think our big ambitions come on the long-haul network in terms of adding unique destinations, increasing frequencies and capacity,” he said.

Smooth operator
Brussels had some operational disruptions in summer 2022, but by following a tightly managed process, including close collaboration with all stakeholders around the airport, it managed to avoid major problems, explained Demunter. “The principles we followed in 2022 were crucial and we are applying the same principles in preparing for the rest of 2023,” he said.
“The first is ecosystem thinking, which is a full realisation that as a community we either lose or win together, and that the weakest link in the chain is going to determine the overall performance,” said Demunter.
“As an airport you’re in a position that you can really support others. You are the facilitator and co-ordinator and that is key,” said Dirk Vrebos, Director Airport Operations. “So, you cannot take any decision that is good for you if it would harm any other parts of the chain. With that mentality, your problem is our problem and let’s solve it together,” he said.
The second principle is to prepare early. In December 2021, with Brussels only at 25% of its normal volume, the airport took the bold decision to prepare for summer 2022 volumes of 70-80%, said Demunter.
The airport arranged meetings with its main home base carriers Brussels Airlines and TUI, and handlers Aviapartner and Alyzia [which came into the Brussels market in April 2021 following the bankruptcy of Swissport Belgium in June 2020], to collectively gear up for the traffic increase, said Vrebos. They reviewed the data and each other’s manpower plans to help ensure they were in step.
The third principle is to be data driven, an area where Brussels has invested heavily. Under the Airport’s Collaborative Decision-Making process, real-time and forecast data is gathered from its various partners and crunched at the Airport Operations Centre (APOC), which is where all the operational stakeholders meet, and operations are co-ordinated.
Aviato, which is the employment centre at Brussels Airport, played an important role in supporting the airport, handlers and airlines in attracting and hiring staff during the 2022 ramp-up, which helped Brussels manage this period “fairly well”, and certainly with no capacity cutbacks as seen at other European airports, said Vrebos.
The fact that Aviato has existed for many years, along with the relationships it has built up with Belgian government bodies, was an advantage for Brussels and its partners in its peak hiring drive, as well as during normal times, said Demunter. At any time, on average, there are 500 vacancies at the 300 or so companies working at the airport. In early 2022 this peaked at 1,200 vacancies, illustrating the size of the recruitment challenge.
In terms of airport development, Brussels was considering a new concourse pre-Covid, but that is some years off now, said Demunter. “We are mainly looking at the current facilities and how we can further optimise them and increase the commercial offer to make it even more attractive,” he said.
Brussels is also investing heavily with additional capacity coming on stream in its cargo zone as it redevelops the central area that was established in the 1980s.