BRUSSELS, Belgium (6th UPDATE) – Brussels Airport reopened Sunday, April 3, with 3 “symbolic” flights and strict additional checks for passengers, marking a new high-security era for air travel in Belgium after attacks by Islamic State suicide bombers.
The key travel hub has been closed since two men blew themselves up in the departure hall on March 22 in coordinated blasts that also struck a metro station in the Belgian capital, killing a total of 32 people.
A Brussels Airlines plane bound for the Portuguese city of Faro became the first to take off from the reopened airport.
Tearful employees and government officials marked the 1140 GMT departure with a minute’s silence and a round of applause, AFP reporters saw, while on the tarmac fire engines and police vehicles formed a guard of honor.
“We’re back,” Brussels Airport chief executive Arnaud Feist said after watching the plane take to the skies.
Two further flights, to Athens and Turin in Italy, were also scheduled for departure in what Feist called a “symbolic” reopening of the airport. The same 3 planes were to return to Brussels with passengers later Sunday.
The restart of the airport has been hailed as the beginning of a return to normal for a traumatized country, but the shadow of the attacks loomed large.
Two big white tents were serving as temporary check-in facilities to replace the blast-hit departure hall, and passengers were asked to come 3 hours before departure to allow time for tight new security checks.
The first travelers to arrive Sunday were met by heavily armed police and soldiers on the access roads to the airport.
There was also a strong security presence inside the tents where travelers walked through metal detectors and had their bags screened before checking in and being allowed to enter the main building.
‘We can overcome this’
Loukas Bassoukos, a 20-year-old IT student waiting for his flight to Athens, said it felt “a bit weird” to be among the first to return to the bomb-hit airport.
“So many people died here,” he told AFP. “But I think we can overcome this. I think we slowly have to start trusting the security controls.”
Psychologists were on hand to assist any passengers overcome with emotion, AFP reporters saw.
Under the new system, only passengers with tickets and ID documents are allowed into the makeshift departure hall, and all bags will be checked before entering. Once inside, travelers will still have to go past the usual security barriers.
Zaventem airport will initially only be accessible by car, with no access for buses and trains. Vehicles will be screened and subject to spot checks.
The number of flights will be stepped up gradually, although the airport will only be able to work at 20% capacity at best using the temporary facilities, handling 800 to 1,000 passengers an hour.
It will take months to repair the departure hall, according to Feist. The damage from the blasts was severe, with pictures from the scene showing the building’s glass-fronted facade in shatters, collapsed ceilings and destroyed check-in desks.
Feist said he expected the airport to start running normally again from late June or early July.
Economic ripple effects
The closure of Zaventem airport has wreaked havoc on the travel industry, triggering a drop in tourist arrivals and forcing thousands of passengers to be rerouted to other airports in and around Belgium.
Brussels Airport, which claims it contributes some 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) annually to the Belgian economy, has not released any figures on the economic impact of the shutdown, but top carrier Brussels Airlines has said it has been losing 5 million euros daily.
With 260 companies on-site employing some 20,000 staff overall, the airport is one of the country’s largest employers.
Belgium’s tourist industry was already suffering from the aftermath of Islamic State attacks in Paris last November, which killed 130 people.
A number of the Paris attackers had links to Brussels and the city went into lockdown for several days after the carnage in neighboring France, with security forces fearing an imminent attack.
The sole surviving Paris suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested in Brussels on March 18, just 4 days before the Brussels killings.
He denies having any prior knowledge of the attacks in the Belgian capital, although investigators have uncovered links with two of the bombers.
Belgian police are still hunting for a mystery third suspect, dubbed “the man in the hat,” who was seen in CCTV footage next to the two airport bombers. – Alix Rijckaert, AFP / Rappler.com