Rumble: My Love Affair With Sabena

That is Sabena. Not Sabrena, Sabine, or Sabrina! We’re talking about our ex-national carrier. A customer-company platonic love affair! If you are looking for sexual inspired stories, you won't find it here! Or should I tell them about he Mile-High club?

Anyway, just a few months ago, SN Brussels Airlines and Virgin Express merged into Brussels Airlines. I was a regular customer of both “parent” companies, so when flying to Rome I was curious to experience first hand the excitement of the new merged airline.
I used to be a regular customer of SABENA, the Belgian national carrier. Back in the eighties and early nineties, they were a shabby airline, deserving their nickname “Such A Bloody Experience Never Again”. Back then, Brussels national airport was a dump, a national shame. Run down, inefficient, unattractive. It was the only airport I knew then, where you had to pay with a coin (then still Belgian Francs), to get a luggage cart in arrivals. Would the international traveler arriving in Brussels, with a Bef 20 coin in their pocket please raise their hand? Right. So most people had to drag their luggage out of arrivals. Pathetic, it was.

Mid nineties, it all started to change. Sabena expanded their network, renewed its fleet of aircraft, and had an overhaul of its staff. Actually it became a pleasure flying with them. And I flew Sabena a lot, as they had loads of African destinations.
Brussels Airport did not get a facelift, no, it went further than that. They amputated the departure halls, then the arrivals hall and cut off one of the oldest departure/arrival wings, all to be replaced by brand new state-of-the-art buildings.

After flirting with SAS, courting KLM, seducing British Airways and winking at Air France for a while – the latter relationship being blocked by the EU – Sabena decided to partner up with Swiss Air in 1995. And Swiss Air spoiled it all. They literally sucked up all liquidity and valuable assets, and run off with it, declaring bankruptcy themselves right after 9/11 (a handy excuse, 9/11 was!). They left behind a sad-faced Sabena management who could not have been too clever having Swiss Air get away with all the sucking! The souvenir of the short lived partnership was a huge debt and a flabbergasted Belgian Government (who was then a part owner of the national carrier).. They are still fighting as to determine who mismanaged Sabena. They went bankrupt also. Sabena that is. The Belgian state was bankrupt already a long time ago.

Gone was the holy shrine of the jet-era flashy status of being a pilot or air attendant. They all joined the long queue at the employment office. Left was just.. a shrine.. And a massively under-utilized brand new national airport. Oh, and thousands of stranded passengers of course… “Sorry, we can not fly you back to Belgium, madam as ‘We’ don’t exist anymore!”
It took “Swiss Air” only weeks to get reborn into “Swiss” – no wonder with all the cash and assets they ran off with from Sabena. But the Belgian carrier is still picking up the pieces today.


First reborn into SN Brussels Airlines (who invents these names? People actually get paid to come up with a name like “SN” Brussels Airlines?), as a small regional carrier, slowly expanding their network. They were still a pleasure to fly. And the left-over air staff from Sabena, still showed a pride.

Virgin Express was born in 1996, using Brussels as a regional hub, servicing several destinations in Europe. They were to be a low cost carrier, but after a few years they became just as expensive as SN. Minus leg room (you wanted to bring your legs aboard, you had to pay extra..), minus food, minus drinks, minus the frequent travel scheme and often minus the smiles too. Plus the attitude, often.

It is a mystery to me why SN wanted to merge with Virgin and create Brussels Airlines… Just as it was a mystery to me who invented their TV publicity spot announcing the merger (people actually get paid for stuff like this?). The spot showed (tricked of course) two aircraft (one Virgin 737 and an SN Avro Jet), courting in the sky, flying loops and upside down stunts together (rather a scary sight to see a 737 passenger jet fly loops and upside downs, I am sure there is a law against that, but hey it’s TV!…), to clearly show how much in love the two planes and the two parent companies were.
Result of the courtship was a rather distasteful televised birth of a small plane (including all the slime, blood etc..) pressed out of the back of a Virgin Express 737 (clearly in the female role!), and.. taraaaaaa, the small plane had the logo of Brussels Airlines. How inventive, those TV commercials people! Oh wow!

So I guess Virgin Express was no longer a Virgin anymore. They stopped being ‘Express’ a long time before the merger… Mr. Branson probably said ‘Thank you’, took the money and ran, to buy another island in the Caribbean (actually quite a nice one, we anchored right beside it last summer!) leaving all of us mortals to wonder what the merger would do..


And what did the merger bring? Read about it tomorrow in "SN plus Virgin equals abortion?"

1 comments:

Lisa,  01 May, 2007 10:02  

Hey, I really enjoyed reading your blog.

x Lisa x

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