Need I say Moores

Forward From 15: The effects of 9/11 on Europe

by Victoria Moores
Sep 09, 2016

On Sept. 11, 2001, the unthinkable happened. And while Europe was an ocean away on that tragic day, the ripples are still being felt today.

I was working for UK carrier bmi, overseeing our ground handling activities at Brussels Airport. First there were reports that a light aircraft had hit one of the twin towers. Then the real story unfolded and every news site on the internet went down. The two TVs in the business lounge at Brussels Airport were showing Sky News and BBC footage on a repeat loop, as passengers waited to board their own aircraft.

There were lots of rumours. Rumours that another aircraft was headed for the NATO headquarters, which is just six minutes’ drive from the airport. Rumours that the European institutions in downtown Brussels were also a target. Thankfully these rumours were unfounded, but nobody knew that at the time.

I had flights to handle. A captain refused to carry some passengers, based on their nationality. A young first officer was in tears, refusing to fly. No training ever prepares you for a day like that – but maybe this was the training for what was to follow. The unthinkable became more of a norm.

Two things then happened. On the ground, security was stepped up and we had to process endless watchlists. Secondly, the downturn that followed created an opportunity for much-needed and rapid restructuring (my job was cut a month later). Back then European airlines were bloated and inefficient; that post-9/11 shake-up made Europe’s airlines leaner and more agile than ever before.

What’s happened at Brussels Airport since 9/11 tells a wider story. Earlier this year, I reported on a terrorist bombing in that same departures hall where I used to work. That was just one of the many suicide attacks we’ve seen in European capitals since 9/11. The unthinkable – like a lorry deliberately ploughing through a crowd of people in Nice - continues to happen.

The airline landscape has changed dramatically. When I was working in Brussels, Sabena was in trouble, blighted by unsustainable strikes. Now Sabena is gone. Ultimately bmi disappeared too, after first being acquired by Lufthansa and then by British Airways. Low-cost carrier (LCC) Virgin Express no longer exists either; it was part of the foundation used to create Brussels Airlines. And these are just the changes at Brussels.

Wider consolidation followed. Air France-KLM was created in 2004, and Lufthansa Group acquired Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines and Swiss in the late 2000s. British Airways and Iberia came together as International Airlines Group (IAG) in 2011, ultimately also acquiring Irish carrier Aer Lingus and Spanish LCC Vueling. Prior to 2001, this sort of consolidation was unheard of in Europe.

Back then, easyJet and Ryanair were in their infancy. In 1999, just prior to moving to Belgium, I did some research that showed business travelers were wary of LCCs, because of safety concerns and restrictive corporate travel deals that favored network airlines. Today easyJet, Ryanair and a host of other European LCCs pretty much control the short-haul market, achieving annual load factors in excess of 90% – a figure airlines could only dream of in 1999. Business passengers now fill a heavy proportion of those seats.

Gulf carriers also emerged from nowhere, offering a luxury long-haul product at an affordable price. This put huge pressure on the European legacy airlines, which were already facing fierce LCC competition on short haul. Since those post-9/11 cuts, we’ve seen round after round of labor negotiations as Europe’s old guard strive to stay competitive. This has strained labor relations, recreating some of those old Sabena standoffs.

Liberalization was a huge part of the formula that created the right place and time for the market to thrive. And yet in 2016, we’ve seen a push back on several fronts. The ongoing delay to Norwegian’s US foreign air carrier permit is putting a strain on transatlantic open skies. The Gulf carrier debate has led to allegations of protectionism, and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union has triggered a lot of questions over the likely impact on route and ownership rights.

If there is a need to unravel European consolidation – such as IAG and British Airways – to recreate majority UK-controlled airlines, it will be no small feat. As Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary said, you can’t put liberalization back in a box. The world has changed.

Victoria Moores

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