The Brussels Hustle: Suddenly, there’s an airline boom in the European Union’s capital city

After two straight years of quiet, the bells of Belgium are ringing.

In 2012, and again in 2013, airline activity at Brussels Airport was largely stagnant, with passenger traffic inching up 2% last year after rising just 1% the year before. And looking further back, Brussels had 6% fewer flights in 2013 than it had five years earlier, according to an Airline Weekly analysis using Diio Mi. A sleepy market indeed.

April 14 2014But this year, you can throw all of that out the window. In the current quarter, seat counts from Brussels are up a stunning 16% y/y, making it the second fastest growing of Europe’s major airports, just a few percentage points behind the resurgent Athens, which is climbing out of a deeper hole after losing a greater percentage of its traffic during the downturn. The Brussels upturn, in fact, was already evident in the final quarter of last year, when passenger counts jumped 7% y/y. Even in terms of raw number of new seats scheduled this Q2 vs last, only much larger Frankfurt has more.

What accounts for this volcanic eruption? Most importantly, Brussels is an early example of Ryanair’s new network strategy, focusing on primary big-city airports. Last fall, the LCC surprised its rivals by announcing a new base at the city’s main airport despite a large and longtime presence at Charleroi on the outskirts of the city. In February, Ryanair’s new Brussels operation launched, with four based aircraft flying to 10 cities across Europe. Immediately, Ryanair became the airport’s busiest non-Belgian airline by seats. It did simultaneously downsize at Charleroi, exiting some markets and cutting frequencies. But it remains a large player there, and Charleroi is still its fourth busiest base overall—the new base at the main airport is small by comparison.

But big enough to have an impact on the market’s incumbent carriers. Naturally, Brussels Airlines is not amused. It depends heavily on the sort of local point-to-point traffic that’s especially vulnerable to LCCs—particularly LCCs chasing business passengers, a description that now fits Ryanair. Only about a quarter of Brussels Airlines passengers are connecting through its Brussels hub, although an undisclosed…

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