My Thoughts On Air Belgium

In February we heard about a new airline named Air Belgium, which planned to restart operations in 2016 after ceasing operations in 2000. Air Belgium wants to start a hub out of Brussels South Airport, which is Brussels’ low-cost airline airport – the biggest operator out of the airport right now, by far, is Ryanair. I was particularly fascinated by Air Belgium because their first planned route was from Charleroi Airport to Hong Kong.

You’d think the airline would want to start some regional routes first so passengers in Hong Kong would have more connection opportunities, instead of just running a “long and thin” route from an airport that currently doesn’t serve any longhaul routes. But Air Belgium is ambitious, and the first flight leaves Charleroi at 2 PM local time tomorrow, June 3rd, and will land in Hong Kong on Monday morning.

I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts out of my fascination from the airline.

The airline’s hard product will be decent

One thing I was pleasantly surprised about regarding Air Belgium was their hard product. They decided to acquire an A340 off Finnair, who operated their last A340 flight in 2017. This means that they’ll have staggered seats in business class, and their premium economy and economy seats don’t look too bad either (actually, for now, their premium economy seats will be the best in the industry).

Air Belgium Airbus A340 Business Class

Air Belgium Airbus A340 Premium Economy

Air Belgium Airbus A340 Economy Class

Since Air Belgium isn’t selling at particularly high prices, if you’re flying between Hong Kong and Belgium and are paying cash for business class, flying Air Belgium is a no-brainer.

The airline has terrible load factors

Air Belgium’s business class for today’s inaugural flight looked as follows as of yesterday (you’d expect it’d be packed, due to the prices that are being offered on the route):

Their premium economy seatmap (which, again, they haven’t bothered retrofitting yet) looked as follows:

Their economy cabin looked as follows (let’s give the airline the benefit of the doubt and assume that the rear rows in economy were taken by a large tour group, and not just arbitrarily blocked):

I’ve searched a few other dates on Air Belgium’s website and not once have I found more than two occupied seats for any subsequent flight. I highly doubt this route is going to be sustainable given the load factors. I mean, summer season is coming, and Air Belgium couldn’t fill a single of their two weekly flights here to Hong Kong.

How bad is the airline’s business model?!?!

There are so many things that I can find wrong with Air Belgium’s business model that I’m not sure where to start.

First of all, Air Belgium is operating out of Brussels’ smallest airport, as they want to start a hub there. Cathay Pacific only recently started an A350 flight between Hong Kong and Brussels, which suggests that demand wasn’t even there for the route between the two cities until recently. Cathay Pacific is also operating one of their lower-capacity aircraft between the two cities, which suggests that it’s not one of their highest-capacity routes.

IMG_0709

The justification of starting a route between Hong Kong and Brussels Charleroi with no connecting opportunities whatsoever is beyond me. In a way I can see how flying straight to Brussels International Airport would be problematic, as they’d be competing with Brussels Airlines to start a hub there, they won’t ever be able to charge a revenue premium over Cathay Pacific in the near future. But it doesn’t seem like flying to a smaller airport in Brussels operated primarily by low-cost airlines is doing them any favours either.

I don’t understand which way they’re trying to go and what kind of airline they’re trying to operate as. On one hand they’re touting themselves as a “low-cost” option between Brussels and Hong Kong, and also flying out of an airport that’s currently dominated by Ryanair. On the other hand, they’re flying a separate business class cabin with fully flat beds, and a premium economy cabin that’s similar to what most low-cost airlines offer as a business class product. While that’s great for us, especially since the airline’s offering pretty cheap fares, I can’t see where they’re trying to go with their business model at all, and I can’t see it sustaining for long at all.

Also, they elected to operate the route with an A340. A340s are currently being brought out of service because of how fuel-inefficient they are – they’re lower-capacity, and the A330-200 can reach similar ranges with much higher fuel efficiency. Along with the low load factors, I’m wondering how much money they’re losing on every single flight they’re operating on the route. With a smaller A330, they’d probably be able to operate a few more frequencies per week between Hong Kong and Brussels – a twice-weekly flight gives pretty much no flexibility for leisure travelers, the airline’s target audience.

Lastly, the airline started selling tickets to passengers for flights beginning on April 30, and only after did they realise they were missing flyover permits over Russia. At least 25% of the flight between Charleroi and Hong Kong is flown over Russia, and they dismissed this error as an “oversight”. If that’s the biggest error that has appeared before they even started flying, who knows what problems they’re gonna face over the coming month.

Bottom Line

I wouldn’t count on the airline lasting so long, as they seem to have set themselves up to lose some pretty big money on the route. That said, despite all the errors they’ve created on the management front they do seem to potentially have a decent product, so I’d like to try them out while they’re still around. Trust me, though, that won’t be long.

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