Niky Terzakis, CEO Air Belgium, interviewed by Ross Falconer.
A new disruptor is looking to shake up the market for intercontinental services between Europe and Asia. Start-up Air Belgium has chosen Brussels South Charleroi Airport as its home base, with its inaugural service to Hong Kong scheduled for the end of March. It will initially operate four weekly flights on the route, with plans to increase that to six by the autumn.
Hong Kong is, of course, a key business destination and a major hub to Asia. Surprisingly, it’s never been served directly from the European capital, Brussels, even though it’s a very business-friendly and competitive environment for all kinds of travellers. That’s all set to change by the end of March, with Air Belgium to be competing with Cathay Pacific on the route. Cathay is launching its own service from Brussels Airport to Hong Kong on 25 March.
“We definitely wish to be market disruptors,” says Niky Terzakis, CEO Air Belgium. “We’re looking at a fresh and very competitive offer, not just fare but also service-wise. The Belgian O&D market is pretty significant and the lack of long-haul flights from Belgium to the world’s largest passenger market – Asia – is remarkable to say the least. Our ambition is to serve a selection of Asian destinations with an offering that makes sense to leisure, premium and business travellers. We aim to drop the bling and focus on the essentials. We’ve conducted very extensive market studies and our entire strategy is based on precisely what customers are demanding: simplicity, competitive fares, and high-quality service.”
The airline plans to operate seven routes this year, including Hong Kong and six other destinations on the Chinese mainland as of May 2018. “It is too early to mention the other destinations at this stage,” Terzakis adds. “The reason for that is simple: we want to secure the best slots for our passengers. All we can reveal right now is that we’ll be enabling new direct connections between the heart of Europe and major and medium-sized cities in China.”
Air Belgium has established its Asia Pacific permanent offices in Hong Kong, from which it will develop its Asian network and destinations.
Air Belgium and BSCA: “Shared destiny for – at least – the next 10 years”
Terzakis’ previous experience includes 15 years as CEO of cargo airline TNT Airways (now rebranded as ASL Airlines Belgium). “There really isn’t much difference between aircraft and airline economics,” he comments. “My extensive experience with TNT Airways has given me a good feeling for all logistical aspects and technology development. I’m also grateful to have been able to surround myself with a wonderful and very experienced team with many years of experience in demanding passenger operations. Going forward, we’ll make sure to particularly pay attention to new technologies, resulting in continuous developments.”
Key factors in Air Belgium selecting Brussels South Charleroi as its home base were the airport’s accessibility and punctuality, and Terzakis speaks eloquently about the airport and airline’s “shared destiny for – at least – the next 10 years”.
“By working together, the airport will reinforce its international presence and undergo significant changes,” he notes. “It will become an important hub by hosting long-haul carriers that will be connected to other major cities, and by changing its entire infrastructure, including mass transit. The changes also involve the construction of a new Premium Terminal for business and premium passengers, which will allow them to board their plane in less than 20 minutes from the moment they park their car.”
“Being able to welcome a company such as Air Belgium on our apron allows us to switch to a new strategy and further strengthen our international position,” adds Jean-Jacques Cloquet, CEO Brussels South Charleroi Airport. “With the first direct long-distance flights to Asia, the Far East has never been closer.”
The Premium Terminal will be located at the current Terminal Sud (Executive Aviation Terminal), with other facilities to include a full-service Business Lounge. Construction will start at the end of May and take a year to be completed. In the meantime, the airport will be providing temporary solutions for travellers from the first flight.
These infrastructure enhancements will enable the airport to accommodate the Air Belgium fleet, which will comprise four A340-300s, deliveries having begun in mid-February.
In terms of the facilities Air Belgium requires from its airport partners, Terzakis is clear that the biggest emphasis is on the shortest possible processing time for travellers – from the car park to the boarding process. “Premium travellers, in particular, will be offered a unique infrastructure, ensuring no queuing time, the shortest walking distance and a full-service lounge,” he says. “Another USP will be our pronounced focus on service customisation and moving towards a door-to-door service.”
Air Belgium has a phased 10-year plan. The current 3-year phase 1 focuses on starting to serve Asia, and particularly China, with six destinations and four aircraft. It also includes the establishment of a series of interline agreements with Asian and European carriers. “Phase 2 consists of expanding the number of flights to, and destinations in, Asia and complementing the fleet with modern technology aircraft. Phase 3 involves the expansion of our fleet and network, which includes a focus on North and South America,” Terzakis explains.
The market for Europe-Asia services is ripe for disruption, and the launch of Air Belgium is doing just that with a visionary new offer for travellers.
Air Belgium factbox
Base: Brussels South Charleroi Airport
Inaugural route: Hong Kong (end-March 2018)
2018 destinations: 7 (Hong Kong, plus 6 mainland China destinations)
Fleet: 4 A340-300s