7 Interesting Things About Air Belgium

Air Belgium is an ambitious new startup airline that eventually plans to have a fleet of four A340s that they fly between Charleroi Airport and China. They already fly to Hong Kong, and eventually plan on adding destinations in mainland China.

Last Monday I flew Air Belgium from Charleroi to Hong Kong, which was a really cool experience. There were just 25 passengers on the flight, making it the emptiest longhaul flight I’ve ever been on. The flight really exceeded my expectations in many ways, as the staff were all phenomenal, and the soft product was quite good too.

I still have a full trip report coming, but in this post I wanted to touch on some general things that I find especially interesting about the airline, as I’m so fascinated by them. In no particular order:

Air Belgium already has three A340s, with a further A340 on the way

Air Belgium eventually plans to have four A340s, all of which used to fly for Finnair. They already have registration codes OO-ABA and OO-ABB, and they are just taking delivery of their third one, with registration code OO-ABE. The fourth A340 should be joining their fleet within the next couple of months.

Air Belgium has a mysterious ownership structure

I can’t imagine how much money Air Belgium lost on their Charleroi to Hong Kong flight that I took, given that it had just 25 passengers. I imagine they must have lost over $100,000 on the flight, just as a rough estimate.

Obviously the airline has at least somewhat deep pockets, which makes one wonder about who is funding the operation. Air Belgium has five major shareholders, with Aviation Investment Holding having a 49.995% share. There’s surprisingly little out there about Aviation Investment Holding, though it does look like there’s some Chinese and Russian money there.

Not only that, but Air Belgium’s CEO seems to get pretty irritated when asked about the mysterious ownership structure. Hmmm…

Booking Air Belgium premium economy is a fantastic deal

Air Belgium claims to have three classes of service — economy, premium economy, and business class. On their website, Air Belgium advertises their premium economy as offering seats in a 2-3-2 configuration. They actually look like standard economy seats with a wider aisle, which is odd.

Interestingly, Air Belgium hasn’t actually installed these seats on any of their planes, though. Instead, the rear business class cabin is reserved for premium economy passengers. This means that if you buy a premium economy seat you actually get a flat bed with direct aisle access, which is a heck of a deal.

Air Belgium has experienced employees

Personally I’m not someone who is concerned about airline safety, though I know a lot of people are worried about flying start-up airlines because they wonder if the employees have experience. Flying Air Belgium, I was very pleasantly surprised by not only the friendliness of the employees, but also how experienced they were. This was true of the cabin crew and cockpit crew.

Just because this is a new airline, don’t expect employees are new to the industry, as that didn’t seem to be the case at all. For example, the lead flight attendant on my flight had been flying for over a decade for various airlines.

Charleroi’s runway length is an issue

I find Air Belgium’s business model to be confusing to begin with, though one confusing thing that hasn’t been covered much is the runway length at Charleroi Airport. Charleroi Airport has a single runway, and it’s 8,366 feet long. That’s not terribly long for an A340-300 taking off on a longhaul flight.

Aviation24 reports that because of this shorter runway, Air Belgium has to limit the number of passengers on the eastbound flight to 257, and has to give up about 12 tons of cargo capacity. Furthermore, they need to do maximum thrust takeoffs from Charleroi, which translates to a shorter life for the engines. For a route that already has very questionable economics, it’s even more puzzling that they’d choose to fly out of an airport where they can’t even carry a full load.

Charleroi Airport will supposedly extend the runway by 2021, though that’s quite a ways off.

Air Belgium continues to operate charters on behalf of other airlines

At the moment Air Belgium continues to operate a single scheduled route between Charleroi and Hong Kong 3x weekly. Air Belgium is operating a charter flight for Air France between Paris and Lagos, and previously they operated an Air France charter between Paris and Libreville.

The airline also recently requested the rights to fly to the US, presumably also to operate charters on behalf of other airlines.

As I’ve said from the beginning, in the near future this is the only sustainable business model I see for them, given the amount of demand there is for charter planes right now due to the 787 issues.

Air Belgium offers a hybrid product

For Air Belgium scheduled flights, Air Belgium offers a proper business class experience, while they offer a hybrid experience in economy. In economy the main meals and drinks are free, while snacks and drinks between meals have to be purchased. That’s an interesting approach for an airline to take nowadays, as it seems we mostly see airlines go with one extreme.

Bottom line

I continue to find this airline to be absolutely fascinating, and hopefully at least some of the above is news to you guys. As I’ve said from the beginning, I’d be shocked if the airline adds more routes for now, but rather I suspect they’ll stick to their charter business of operating flights on behalf of other airlines, where they actually stand a chance of turning a profit.

Comments

  1. 8: Air Belgium business class has no doors, and Lucky has a fetish for doors because he hates people to spy on him drooling as he sleeps

  2. Do we know when they will install their new premium economy seats? How long will the business seats be available for those booking PE?

  3. @ Niko_jas — That hasn’t been revealed, though personally I’d be very surprised if they spend the money to reconfigure these planes anytime soon.

  4. @lucky – Thai does the same PE lie flat deal on flights to CPH and DME. Id argue that is a much better deal because you can earn valuable United miles on top of an excellent product.

  5. Charleroi is in the belgium province of “Wallonie”.

    I think the government of “Wallonie” is also a shareholder.

    All of that may explain the choice of Charleroi airport.

  6. Hrm, on further investigation the owners, it’s likely this is a money laundering operation for Russian oligarchs along the lines of Maxim Chernizov, whose previous operation was using stratospheric aircraft for WiMax networks. Of course, that didn’t pan out and the U.S. executives are now all in jail.

    That’s likely why they’re getting snippy when pressed.

  7. I thought so too. Money laundering. But how do you launder money in a Loss making business? To launder money you need to show profits.

    Maybe they will get an unexpected lucrative contract in the future.

  8. Oh, also very interesting: the menu you featured is in simplified Chinese, and all items offered (辣煌尚, 黃飛紅 and 茶π) are all mainland Chinese snacks/drinks that are very rare in HK. These can all potentially turn away a few HK residents who may be sensitive to this kind of things.

  9. “There’s surprisingly little out there about Aviation Investment Holding, though it does look like there’s some Chinese and Russian money there”

    A bit more investigated journalism please. Or don’t make such statements.
    How does it ‘look like’ it?

  10. @ beyounged – Oh yes. Because a few words in simplified Chinese (when most Hong Kongers are decent, if not fluent in English) and a few mainland Chinese snacks provided on the menu will piss us Hong Kongers off so much that we’ll vow never to fly Air Belgium ever again.

    Lucky, it seems like your flight on them has really changed your perspective of the airline and you now genuinely want to see them succeed. Can’t wait for the full report.

  11. @Niko_jas
    I read that the planes are going to be reconfigured in the winter months around Jan 2019.

  12. Charleroi airport is a great success and growing more every year with billions of passengers. Another brand new terminal has just opened.

    Air Belgium will offer flights to the US and it will be a success. Charleroi is really conveniant and fast.

    Also China will open a giant factory in Charleroi (Thunder Power – electric car) at the former Caterpillar website. Demands for Asia is growing.

    I am sure that AirBelgium will be great success; they need time to be in place and grow (it’s Belgium after all)

  13. “billions of passengers”

    billions?

    per Wikipedia they served 7.3 million passengers in 2016. (take source as you wish)

  14. Money laundering doesn’t have to show profit. It is simply a way to try and legitimize the money. So if you have $100M illegally, but if you can run it through a company and end up with $80M that seems legit, that may be ok. For example if you steal something and fence it, you aren’t going to get true value for it but it doesn’t matter much since you didn’t pay for it.

    Just my guess (I’m not in that kind of business!).

    When I was in Scottsdale there was a night club that was about as close to Vegas as you could get in Scottsdale and I could never figure out how it made money (it could seat 800 for dinner). Sure it was slammed on a Saturday night and did ok on Friday but the rest of the time it was pretty empty. Turned out the owner was using it to launder money from other activities.

  15. Rich I guess that makes sense. All the costs and revenue are disclosed in the legitimate business. So the only way to launder is if

    1) costs are artificially low on paper but the shortfall is made up with undisclosed money on the side.

    2) the revenue is artificially high with others paying more then they normally would for such goods or services.

    So you need some others in cahoots who are willing to throw good money/services in return for bad cash on side so that you can launder your money. In effect the hot potato is passed to someone else presumably for a commission. I guess it does not need to be in profit to launder money but a very heavy cash flow business will be ideal for laundering. Heavy cash flow but thin margins. Airlines, grocery stores, nightclubs, construction, hotel construction (hint, hint, hint)

  16. I’ve always heard freight makes more money than passengers on a flight. Could it be 1) they know it’s new so it’ll take some time to make some money and 2) revenue from freight could actually be making the operation less “unprofitable”?

  17. I still don’t think Air Belgium is a real thing.

    Like no investor is going to buy into an airline purchasing a few A340 (which is being retired by most airlines because of the high operating cost) on a route that has no demand and no real business model.

    Altough I do think it’s a cool Airline and love that they’re saving A340’s.
    I just wonder how the government haven’t realised how suspect they are 🙂

  18. Nice facts about Air Belgium. Googling it and I see that the HQ is located in Mont Saint-Guibert which is basically a village close to the city of the university I graduated from.
    Interesting fact about the PE seats, will check out if they have any good deals in PE for a long weekend to HK to just try the flight out even though they don’t earn any points anywhere….just for the sake of trying this interesting airline.

    Cheers!

  19. Ben. Get James to check this out. It could possibly be the cheapest way ever to fly from Sydney to UK. VA sale fares to HKG are $500 AUD at the moment, it’s 400 euro to fly air Brussels and then 24 euro on Ryan air into most locations across Europe. Add an extra $200 for the premium economy but you get business then this is a bargain. Especially as the air Belgium flight is empty and you get a row of seats in economy to lie down to yourself.

  20. Hi from Brussels,

    Nobody wants to fly out of Charleroi unless the flight is €9 or cheaper

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