Brussels airport eyes Sunday reopening as govt, police agree security deal

[BRUSSELS] Bomb-hit Brussels Airport is on track to reopen on Sunday, a Belgian government source said, after the authorities reached a deal with police on introducing tighter security at the key travel hub following the March 22 suicide attacks.

"There is an agreement," Vincent Gilles, head of the SLFP police union, told AFP after lengthy talks Friday.

He said the government and the airport operator had given in to their main demand for "systematic checks" of passengers and their luggage before going through customs.

The agreement removed the final obstacle standing in the way of the airport's partial resumption of services. The next step is for the government to give the formal go-ahead for the reopening.

"We hope that the airport can reopen Sunday morning," a government source told AFP.

The operator of Brussels Airport, whose departure hall was wrecked in last week's blasts, had said Thursday the airport was "technically ready" to resume partial services after testing new, temporary check-in facilities.

But no flights were announced as police unions held up the planned reopening, threatening to go on strike unless stricter checks were imposed.

Complaining about lax security in the past, they proposed using metal detectors to check all visitors before they enter the airport zone and introducing checks on cars.

The airport operator warned however that such moves would create long queues outside the building that could be another target for attackers.

"There aren't any European airports that apply such measures," Brussels Airport spokeswoman Florence Muls said earlier Friday.

It was not immediately clear if the new security checks agreed in the deal would take place outside or inside the temporary departure hall.

When Zaventem airport does reopen, it will still 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.

The airport's spokeswoman Florence Muls, speaking to AFP before the deal with police was announced, also said flights would resume on Sunday at the earliest.

"Once we have a formal agreement on the security measures, approved by the interior ministry, we can start calling employees, and carriers can contact their passengers, this will take some time," she said.

A total of 32 people were killed in the coordinated Islamic State blasts on the airport and a Brussels metro station, the worst-ever attacks in the de facto capital of the European Union.

As Belgium seeks to turn the page on last week's traumatic events, the reopening of the airport "is symbolically and economically important," the spokesman of Prime Minister Charles Michel told Belga news agency.

Brussels Airport, which says it contributes some three billion euros (S$4.6 billion) annually to the Belgian economy, has not released any figures on the financial impact of the attacks, but the ripple effects have been felt throughout the travel industry.

Its top carrier Brussels Airlines has said it was losing five million euros daily in what it called the "biggest crisis" of its history.

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

Since the attacks, 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.

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


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