Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Brussels Airport Grapples With How to Reopen After Attacks: Closed since the March 22 departure-terminal bombings, the airport likely will operate below-capacity for months

The Wall Street Journal
March 30, 2016 3:18 p.m. ET

Last week’s devastating bombings have put the operators of Brussels Airport in a difficult position: how to reopen a crucial piece of transport infrastructure in the wake of severe destruction while paying respect to the scene of such recent trauma.

The twin explosions on check-in rows 11 and 2, triggered by two Islamic State suicide bombers, tore through the airport’s departure hall on the morning of March 22, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 100. They blew out the hall’s glass front and air ducts, partially collapsed ceilings and ripped apart check-in desks, computers and other equipment central to an airport that last year handled more than 23 million passengers.

The arrivals hall, where passengers pick up checked-in luggage and passed through customs, was also damaged. A third bomb, containing even more explosives than the first two, detonated in the afternoon, causing further destruction.

“It’s clear that we won’t restart in this war zone,” said Anke Fransen, the airport’s spokeswoman.

To get the airport back to its full capacity of around 600 daily flights will require a full renovation of the departure hall and could take months, Ms. Fransen said. “We won’t commit ourselves to a date,” she said.

The attacks have left the airport and many of the people working there in a state of shock. At least one check-in agent, Fabiennne Vansteenkiste, was killed during the bombings.

Since March 22, no commercial passenger flights have passed through Brussels Airport and Ms. Fransen said Wednesday that it will remain closed until at least Thursday afternoon. By then, airlines, baggage handlers and government-security agencies are expected to have finished their assessment of whether they can partially resume operations from temporary departure and arrival areas.

Belgian authorities have ordered baggage checks at the airport’s entrance doors as well as the use of sniffer dogs to detect explosives.

How long that will take to put in place is still unclear. Deutsche Lufthansa AG has canceled all flights to Brussels through at least Sunday. Instead, it is shuttling people from its Frankfurt hub and offering some flights to the Belgian town of Liège. Other airlines have rerouted their planes to Düsseldorf, Germany; Lille, France, or nearby Charleroi.

A trial run in a provisional check-in hall featured just 18 counters, but that could be increased over time, Ms. Fransen said. Initially, the airport will likely run at not more than 20% of its normal capacity, she said.

Brussels Airport, a closely held company in which the Belgian state still holds a 25% stake, hasn’t disclosed the financial impact from the attacks, neither in terms of damage to facilities nor lost business. The rest of the company is owned by private investors, including Ontario’s Teachers’ Pension Plan, which owns 39%, and Australia’s Macquarie Group.
“We are not talking about money, we’re just talking about rebuilding,” said Ms. Fransen. “What matters is that our employees and passengers feel safe.” How much of the damage will be covered by insurance is also still unknown. “We haven’t looked in detail,” she said.

What is clear is that the impact of a prolonged shutdown will hit further than just the airport. Brussels Airport is the biggest airport in Belgium and, directly and indirectly, generates as much as 1% of the country’s economic output, according to the Belgian central bank.

“The impact is incredible,” said Eddy Van de Voorde, aviation specialist at the University of Antwerp. Mr. Van de Voorde said that the airport would likely get government support in case insurers can’t cover the full losses. The airport “is strategically so important,” he said. A spokesman for Belgium’s transport minister declined to comment.

Airports throughout the world have experienced terrorist attacks in recent decades, but most of them resumed operations much more quickly than Brussels. Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport halted operations for about 20 minutes after a suicide-bomb blast in January 2011 that killed 37 people.

The return to the airport will also be difficult for many of its regular passengers. Koen D’Hoore, a 26-year-old Belgian IT specialist who works in Ireland, flies in and out of Brussels at least once a month. He said his family had urged him to start booking flights from other airports, such as Eindhoven, Netherlands, or Antwerp, instead. But Mr. D’Hoore said he preferred to stick with the more practical Brussels. “I don’t want to be eaten by the fear of what happened there,” he said.

But, said Mr. D’Hoore, walking through the departure hall for the first time “will be very weird.”

—Matthias Verbergt and Olga Padorina contributed to this article.

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