Bernie Baldwin

A long-time supporter of CONNECT is back in the airline world. Philippe Wilmart is CCO at Air Belgium and brings extensive route development expertise to the role. Here he gives the story so far.

Air Belgium’s early days did not quite go as planned. Scheduled flights with four Airbus A340s, with a focus very much on China was the plan in 2017, with services out of Brussels Charleroi Airport.

So far, so good – but not really, as new chief commercial officer, Philippe Wilmart, explains: “With one of our shareholders being the Belgian state and another the Region of Wallonia, the airline aimed to attract Chinese tourists  through Charleroi as a gateway to Europe. Flights began in summer 2018 between Charleroi and Hong Kong.”

Before Wilmart arrived at the airline, though, things became tricky. “More than 70% of the capacity was in the hands of just one single Chinese tour operator, who completely neglected the terms of the contract, was completely disloyal and was not reliable at all. So when the flights started, the airline had to find other channels of distribution urgently to fill the aircraft,” he reports.

“In the meantime, Cathay Pacific started flights from Brussels Zaventem, also to Hong Kong, which meant there was 3 to 4 months, we decided to axe the flights in order to preserve the future of the company.”

It proved to be a very smart move and enabled a switch to mainly ACMI activity and contracts with British Airways and LOT Polish Airlines, complemented by charter flights.

“We are going to do a world tour, for French tour operator Safrans Du Monde, which is a 3 week flight for very rich people,” Wilmart declares. “It starts at €23,000, rising to €45,000. The ‘World Tour–Air Cruise 2019’ will run from  26 October 2019 to 16 November 2019.

“It’s quite a nice product,” he adds, “but even if it is a very profitable activity, this is definitely not the long term strategy of the company. We have a very good leasing contract with Airbus and their aim is that we operate scheduled flights, not ACMI or only charter flights.

“So the decision was to restart scheduled flights and that’s why they’ve hired me as chief commercial officer. Now the first two routes have been announced – Martinique and Guadeloupe will start on 7 December this year.

“This is of course only the beginning. There’ll be more coming in 2020. First we’ll increase our activity to Martinique and Guadeloupe, because for the moment it’s only planned on a seasonal basis from December to the end of April. We almost already know that it will go further and not stop end of April.

“China is still on the map, but China really relies on the subsidies that we receive from the Chinese regions for launching new flights, so this is something that is taking time. It’s quite political so it is probably going to take another 2-3 seasons before we fly again to China – and they will no longer be to Hong Kong,” he confirms.

Air Belgium’s A340s were 12 year-old former Finnair aircraft which Wilmart says looked as good as new. “However, we decided to refurbish them and they will operate in three classes. We have 32 seats in business class – which is really a very high end product with a flat bed of 2 metres – and a premium cabin of 21 seats, three rows of 2-3-2,” he explains.

“Both business and premium passengers have access to our private lounge at Charleroi. This is an extraordinary lounge because it’s just in front of our aircraft. There is no jet bridge in Charleroi, but passengers can board directly  from the lounge and don’t have to go to the boarding gate – it’s really like a private jet.

“We have an economy class of 212 seats, which for an A340 is very comfortable. All seats with individual screens and choice of movies of course. These aircraft are like the latest models, the A330neo or A350. Of course it’s a 4-engine aircraft which means a little more extra fuel, not that much to be honest, but something between like 5%- 10%. But this is balanced by the fact that we have very, very good leasing terms with Airbus,” he adds.

The choice of Charleroi has been valuable in developing the airline, and a strong partnership the airport has helped. “We have a deal with Charleroi Airport that all flights from China operated by Air Belgium will be from the airport,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that all flights in the future will be operated only from Charleroi. We are Air Belgium, we’re not Air Charleroi or Air Wallonia. We’re a Belgian carrier and half of our staff is Dutch native speaking. So it could be that for other destinations we would also operate flights from Zaventem. This is not to be excluded.

“For the French West Indies, it really makes sense to fly out of Charleroi. It’s a French-speaking destination and almost all flights there at the moment operate from Paris, mainly from Orly which is south of the city. That means that  for travellers north of Paris, it’s quite complicated and time consuming and Charleroi becomes a very good option.

“Charleroi’s catchment is very wide,” Wilmart continues. “Already 20% of the passengers at Charleroi are French, with others coming from Luxembourg, west Germany and southwest Netherlands. Altogether that makes a quite comprehensive catchment area especially for Martinique and Guadeloupe. We have met all the France-based tour operators and cruise companies, who immediately expressed interest for these flights.

“The other major point is to put Charleroi on the map for the people of Martinique and Guadeloupe as being their preferred gateway for Europe, due to the fact that almost 100 destinations are operated to and from Charleroi,  mainly from Ryanair but also with Wizz Air and TUIfly. This is an opportunity to self-connect to many European destinations for very low fares,” the CCO observes. “It was very interesting that the first bookings we saw on our  website included bookings from Poland, Italy, Spain, even from Greece. This must be passengers who have purchased a ticket with either Wizz Air or Ryanair and then another ticket with Air Belgium.”

Wilmart plans to be in Antalya for the next iteration of CONNECT, by which time those West Indies services will be well under way. Watch out for where Air Belgium might want to go next.