provided a huge service to those West African countries
that sufered the brunt of the epidemic. It became the
only European carrier to still serve Sierra Leone after
other airlines suspended services because of the Ebola
outbreak, and throughout the height of the epidemic, it
continued to maintain an air bridge between the three
Ebola-stricken countries and the rest of the world.
Alone, Brussels Airlines continued a twice-weekly
Airbus A330-300 service, providing an essential conduit
for medical equipment and health workers. Between
May 2014 and January 2015 it carried about 62,000
passengers to and from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra
Leone. Many of these were health workers, especially
from Doctors without Borders. Brussels Airlines also
transported more than 1,800 tonnes of cargo, including
tents, medical supplies and other essential equipment.
Gustin explained the story of his company’s involvement in the campaign to the Belgian ambassador
and a group of African ambassadors and other dignitaries. He was joined by representatives of the International Rescue Committee, which has joined forces with
Brussels Airlines in the Africa is not Ebola initiative.
One after another, African ambassadors expressed
their profound thanks to Gustin and his airline for the
lifeline it maintained.
Gustin told ATW in Washington about the moment
last fall when Brussels Airlines found itself alone; all
other European carriers had stopped their Sierra Leone
“Usually it’s good news to fnd you have no competi-
tion, but in this situation, it was not good news,” Gustin
said. “We suddenly had another type of responsibility
because if we stopped operations, the bridge was over.”
Gustin said the airline’s Sabena heritage was a
signifcant factor in the decisions that followed. “We
always had this tradition. My predecessors at Sabena
never stopped operations in African countries through
difcult times. We always few to Uganda even through
the darkest days of the Idi Amin regime.”
Nevertheless, maintaining even just two fights a
week was a complex, costly and time-consuming task.
After Senegal closed its borders, Brussels Airlines had
to move its fight crew base to Dakar, requiring longer
duty times and rota changes. New procedures and
information channels needed to be set up. Some 900
fight crew—as well as 20 West African ground-based
staf—were educated by doctors on the risks and how to
mitigate them. And even though those risks were actu-
ally quite low, crew often faced the additional stress of
feeling stigmatized back home in Europe because people
around them were wary for 30 days.
Gustin himself few to Sierra Leone in October, at
the height of the epidemic, to see frsthand the screening processes at local airports and so that he could
understand operations from the crews’ perspectives.
“Tey are the real heroes. I have enormous respect for
the crew. Tey are parents, yet they have gone back tens
and tens of times,” he said.
He explained that he implemented some baseline rules
for continuing the West Africa fights. Among these, the
program was not made voluntary for crew staf, but any
individual could declare themselves “not ft to fy” if they
did not feel they could cope with a fight. Tey would be
excused without any blame or penalty. Another golden
rule was that if at any time the screening process failed for
any reason—and an infected person with symptoms was
allowed to board—then all services would stop immediately. “I was very clear on the risk—if just one person
passed through, I would not hesitate to stop operations,”
Gustin said. Tat has never happened.
Gustin cited two key moments when he knew that
the company—supported by its unions and employees—had made the right call. On his return fight from
Sierra Leone to Brussels last fall, Gustin said the captain
told everyone onboard “thank you for fying with
Brussels Airlines today.” Te response was immediate
and something Gustin will always remember. “
Everyone, I mean everyone on board, called back, ‘thank
YOU for fying us!’ ” And on Jan. 23, Brussels Airlines
conveyed to Monrovia the frst box of GSK/NIH
vaccinations that have been produced and are being
used in a phase III clinical trial.
“Usually it’s good news to fnd you have
no competition, but in this situation, it
was not good news.”
—Bernard Gustin, Brussels Airlines CEO