Brussels Airlines, the ‘little airline that could’ with an heroic effort during the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, has launched a campaign it hopes will help the continent recover from the lingering and devastating economic impact of the epidemic.
Today, at the Residence of the Belgian Ambassador in Washington DC, Belgium-based Brussels Airlines launched an initiative called “Africa is not Ebola”.
As the airline says, although the virus is by now present in only three out of 56 African countries, tourists, investors, and consumers still avoid regions even far from the affected countries. And March and April are peak tourist season months.
“For Africa to be able to flourish again, it’s time to remind the world of the beauty and economic potential Africa has to offer,” Brussels Airlines says.
Brussels Airlines has already provided a huge service to those West African countries that suffered the brunt of the epidemic. As I wrote in this blog in December, Brussels Airlines is the only European carrier still serving Sierra Leone. Other carriers suspended services after the Ebola outbreak, but Brussels Airlines has continued a twice-weekly Airbus A330-300 service, providing an essential aircraft bridge for medical equipment and health workers.
Today at the ambassador’s residence, Brussels Airlines’ CEO Bernard Gustin explained the story of his company’s involvement in the campaign to the Belgian ambassador and a group of African ambassadors and other dignitaries. He was joined by representatives of the International Rescue Committee, which has joined forces with Brussels Airlines in this initiative.
The first thing to note is that, one after another, African ambassadors expressed their profound thanks to Gustin and Brussels Airlines for the lifeline it maintained.
Gustin said the reason he remained committed to this cause was because, as bad as the epidemic was, the even more dangerous threat to Africa is the international hysteria crisis that followed. “The Ebola crisis has to be solved by Africans supported by Americans and Europeans. The hysteria crisis has to be solved by Americans and Europeans supported by Africans,” he said.
I spoke with Gustin after the launch presentation. He told me that there came a moment last fall when Brussels Airlines suddenly found itself alone; all other European carriers had stopped their Sierra Leone operations.
“Usually it’s good news to find you have no competition, but in this situation, that was not good news,” Gustin told me. “We suddenly had another type of responsibility because if we stopped operations, the bridge was over.”
Gustin said the airline’s Sabena heritage was a significant factor in the decisions that followed. “We always had this tradition. My predecessors at Sabena never stopped operations in African countries through difficult times. We always flew to Uganda even through the darkest days of the Idi Amin regime.”
Nevertheless, maintaining even just two flights a week was a complex, costly and time-consuming task. After Senegal closed its borders, Brussels Airlines had to move its flight crew base to Dakar, requiring longer duty times and rota changes. New procedures and information channels had to be set up. Some 900 flight crew – as well as 20 West African ground-based staff – was educated by doctors on the risks and how to mitigate them. But, even though those risks were actually quite low, crew often faced the additional stress of feeling stigmatized back home in Europe because people around them were wary for 30 days.
Gustin himself flew to Sierra Leone in October, at the height of the epidemic, to see firsthand the screening processes at local airports and so that he could understand operations from the crews’ perspectives. “They are the real heroes. I have enormous respect for the crew. They are parents, yet they have gone back tens and tens of times,” he said.
Gustin cited two key moments when he knew that the company – supported by its unions and employees -- had made the right call.
On his return flight from Sierra Leone to Brussels last fall, Gustin said the captain told everyone onboard “thank you for flying with Brussels Airlines today.” The response was immediate and something Gustin will always remember. “Everyone, I mean everyone on board, called back, ‘thank YOU for flying us!”
And two weeks ago, Brussels Airlines conveyed to Monrovia the first box of vaccinations that have been produced and which are showing positive results.
You can learn more about the campaign at www.africaisnotebola.com