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Belgian economy suffers as devastated airport struggles to reopen

Saturday, April 2, 2016 - 00:32

[BRUSSELS] More than a week after its departure hall was wrecked in twin suicide blasts, Brussels airport remains closed, wreaking havoc on the aviation industry and hurting the Belgian economy.

But security concerns stand in the way of its reopening, causing a headache for the government as it tries to get the major European hub back open for business following the country's worst terror attacks.

Even though the airport has said it is "technically ready" to reopen after trialling temporary check-in facilities this week, airport police have threatened to go on strike unless security is further tightened.

Police say they had complained about slack safety standards long before the March 22 Islamic State attacks.

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Under pressure to find a solution, government officials, Brussels Airport and union representatives were on Friday locked in tense negotiations.

Brussels Airport, which claims it contributes some three billion euros annually to the Belgian economy, has not released any figures on the economic cost of the attacks, but the ripple effects are being felt far and wide.

With 260 companies on-site employing some 20,000 staff overall, the airport is one of the country's largest employers and accounts for just under one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

When the airport does reopen, it will only be working at 20 per cent capacity, the operator has warned, handling 800 to 1,000 passengers an hour. Chief executive Arnaud Feist has said it could take months to return to normal.

Alongside an outpouring of support after the unprecedented attacks at the heart of Europe, Brussels Airport spokeswoman Florence Muls said she had also been fielding calls from "tourist offices, who are counting on us to restore the situation".

Thousands of passengers have had to be rerouted to nearby airports in and around Belgium and hotel bookings have plummeted as tourists stay away, either out of fear or to avoid the travel disruptions.

Belgium's top carrier Brussels Airlines has been the only the company so far to divulge the financial impact of the airport closure, saying it was losing five million euros daily in the "biggest crisis" of its history.

Hotel reservations in the capital meanwhile have fallen by 50 per cent since March 22, the Brussels Hotels Association said.

Patrick Bontinck, head of the Visit Brussels tourism office, said the city saw a similar drop in visitors after the November terror assaults in Paris, as anxious holidaymakers stay away "out of fear" of another attack.

But in an open letter this week, airport police unions called for a radically new approach once the airport reopens, proposing to use metal detectors to check all visitors before they enter the airport zone and stopping and inspecting all cars at the entrance.

A dangerous idea, the airport operator has countered, warning that such changes would only create bottlenecks outside the busy airport where potential attackers could then target large groups of people.

"Instead of having a concentration (of people) in a large building, you would have one among those standing in line outside," Muls told AFP. "There aren't any European airports that apply such measures." Anne-Marie Pellerin, a Paris-based aviation security consultant pointed out that in Israel, for example, queues caused by security checks outside nightclubs and other public spaces have been targeted by suicide bombers.

"I don't think that the plan going forward by... any European government or airport operator, would be to set up checkpoints at the entrance ways to the airport," she said.

While impatience for a reopening may be growing in a country keen to turn the page on last week's traumatic events, aviation experts say passenger safety should be the priority right now.

Analyst Pellerin said it was a matter of finding the right balance between security and providing efficient services for passengers.

"The pendulum swings between those two," she said. "And based on what happened, obviously the pendulum is once more towards security.

"People are very focused on that aspect and don't want to act in a rash way, (by) opening up the terminal immediately then having something terrible happen again."

AFP

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