The inaugural flight of startup airline Air Belgium has finally launched, having landed in Hong Kong International Airport yesterday after numerous delays pushed back the carrier’s previous launch dates.
As previously reported by Business Traveller, the airline’s most recent launch date in April was forced back due to it not receiving overfly rights from the Russian government in time, as well as having problems with its GDS system that meant travellers from China were unable to book with the airline.
The fledgling carrier’s delayed start has definitely had an impact on its current shape. Speaking to reporters in Hong Kong yesterday, CEO Niky Terzakis noted that while sales out of Belgium were “relatively good”, those from Hong Kong were below expectations.
“[Bookings] are too low for my liking,” said Terzakis. “We are at about 39 per cent of bookings out of Hong Kong, and it should be about 50 to 60 per cent as a target.”
Nevertheless, Terzakis expects the airline to break even within about six months, adding that bookings numbers later in the summer and towards September have picked up.
Air Belgium, which bases itself out of Belgium’s lesser-known Brussels South Charleroi Airport, describes itself as a “hybrid” carrier, offering full service with low fares. Current tickets start from HK$4,499 for roundtrip in economy class, HK$9,999 in premium economy and HK$19,999 in business – fares Terzakis says are both all-in and year-round.
Beyond Hong Kong, the airline also has plans to launch in mainland China and hopes to have three more destinations in the country by this September. Air Belgium has been largely tight-lipped on which routes these will be specifically, though Terzakis did confirm all will be secondary cities on the Chinese mainland, one of which will be Wuhan.
The carrier, which bases itself out of the lesser-known Brussels South Charleroi Airport, aims to target business and premium passengers in particular. Its business class cabin currently consists of fully flat seats laid out in an alternating 2-2-2 configuration, along with a premium economy cabin with seats in a 2-3-2 layout.
That being said, the airline does already plan to retrofit its fleet of Airbus A340 aircraft with a different configuration that would see the size of the business class cabin reduce to 18. This is actually a layout the airline originally planned to launch with – its current cabins feature the same seat products and layout as when the aircraft belonged to former owner Finnair, just refurbished.
“We have an excess of business class capacity today on this aircraft, and the premium is the one that most companies will look at going forward in the future,” said Terzakis.
“We were supposed to have started with these configurations since the very beginning, it’s no mystery that our programme has slipped by a few months. We were in a situation where we had to launch a service, so we decided to defer that reconfiguration until the winter.”
But it’s not all bad news. The reconfiguration will also see the introduction of a new premium economy seat product that will be in a separate cabin.
“The premium economy seats will be 1.5 inches wider and offer a recline of up to 18 degrees,” said Terzakis. The layout will also be seven abreast.
Reconfiguration of the aircraft will take about a month each, which is why the airline is waiting until winter to begin the retrofit. Currently, Air Belgium has just two aircraft, with the third joining the fleet in the coming days and the fourth towards the end of this summer.
Air Belgium plans to use these aircraft for its Hong Kong as well as future China routes, though it has plans to bring new aircraft into its fleet in future. These are unlikely to be A340-300s – aircraft Terzakis previously informed Business Traveller are interim aircraft – though precisely which models they will be has yet to be decided.
Any new aircraft likely wouldn’t be delivered before at least 2019.