The airport’s Indian moment is all down to Jet Airways, the Mumbai-based airline that is India’s largest. Controlled by billionaire Naresh Goyal, it chose Brussels five years ago as its European hub, from where it fields six flights a day, seven days a week. (The others are JFK in New York, Newark in New Jersey, and Toronto, making Brussels a “scissors hub” operation for flights to North America.)
In Zaventem, it happens very fast: All six flights land between 7.30 and 8.00, and all leave by 10.30. “There is a lot of pressure in that moment to handle that one peak load, but it means that for the rest of the day, the flight operations are over,” says Hollands.
There were many reasons for Jet Airways to choose Brussels. First, it is a strong market: Belgium is India’s 10th biggest trading partner, with the Antwerp diamond trade generating a lot of traffic, while the automotive, banking and biotechnology sectors are also important. Secondly, from a bureaucratic point of view, Jet Airways was offered traffic rights (mainly because of the collapse of former Belgian flag-carrier Sabena).
Other helpful factors were the good relationships with the Belgian and Flemish governments and a partnership with Brussels Airlines that ensures passengers can transfer easily to almost any major European or African destination. These key links mean Jet Airways always has its own gates rather than remote boarding arrangements, which is important since its flights often carry a high proportion of elderly people.
Hollands says the only logistical headache is passenger and luggage screening for transfers: While the initial screening is accepted by transfer authorities in Europe and the United States, a separate process is still needed during the Brussels-India transfer. “We raise this at every occasion we can with the Indian, Belgian and European authorities,” he says.
The company’s reach, says Hollands, is much wider than its 40 staff in Brussels would suggest, as it has outsourced many key jobs like check-in, fuelling and cleaning (to Flight Care), catering (LSG) and security (Securitas). He cites a University of Leuven (KUL) study showing that Jet Airways accounts for 600 to 800 jobs directly and 2,000 jobs indirectly in Belgium.
Hollands, 38, studied engineering at the KUL, with a minor in aviation, and recently earned an MBA at Vlerick Leuven. Formerly at Sabena, he helped negotiate the Jet Airways hub in 2007 and travels every month or so to the company headquarters in Mumbai. “You have to get used to Indian work culture at Jet Airways,” he says. “Things go much faster than in Sabena; the decision process is shorter. “But it is still a family business, owned 80% by one man, Naresh Goyal, who is still actively involved in the running of the company.”
Jet Airways operates a fleet of 101 aircraft, with over 400 flights daily to 76 destinations worldwide, and enjoys a 29% domestic market share in India. With an average age of 4.37 years, the airline has one of the youngest aircraft fleet in the world. And the market is still surging: Indian air passenger traffic grew 20% last year. “Since the economy is growing so fast, there is a big pool of traffic that needs to be serviced,” says Hollands.
There have been rumours that Jet Airways is considering shifting its hub operation for flights to North America to Munich. They have been fuelled by the company’s recent application for 35 weekly frequencies between India and Germany. While Munich would appear to have a larger origin and destination (OD) market with North America and India, Brussels has the edge to North America. Munich lies close to the automotive heartland of Germany, and virtually all the German automotive majors have a presence in India.
But Hollands is quick to brush the suppositions away. “The rumours have been going on for two years,” he says. “We are constantly evaluating all the options, but that does not mean we are going to be leaving.” What he can say is that the European operations will expand. “More long-haul aircraft will be coming in over the next 18 months. Although we have not decided which routes, it is definitely an expansion. The real question is more about which alliance we want to be in.”
The numbers reveal that OD traffic between India and Brussels is larger than Munich, (roughly 140,000 versus 85,000 annual passengers). More importantly, OD traffic between Brussels and the US is heavier than from Munich (around 700,000 versus 600,000).
But perhaps most significantly, Jet Airways has already built up strong loyalty in the Brussels-North America market, which is equally critical for the viability of these flights. Moving to Munich would mean that they would have to start from scratch in building customer loyalty, which is likely to be retained by Lufthansa anyway.
All this suggests that Jet Airways is likely to stay in Brussels for a while, at least. And that means there is a part of Brussels Airport that will be forever India every morning.