Thursday, November 8, 2001

A court in Brussels yesterday declared the Belgian national airline Sabena bankrupt after 78 years in business, making it the latest victim of a global economic slump and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The Sabena downfall is part of a wave of worldwide airline problems that includes the failure of Switzerland’s Swissair, the potential bankruptcy of Ireland’s Aer Lingus and record quarterly losses for U.S. carriers, such as United Airlines.
The sagging airline industry led a U.N. labor committee to say this week that the world’s carriers will need years to recover from the attacks.
“The events of September 11 were unlike any other shock experienced by the industry,” airline industry leaders said this week during a conference organized by the International Labor Organization.
In fact, Sabena Chairman Fred Chaffart yesterday blamed the company’s failure on poor business decisions by Sabena’s parent company, lagging economic conditions and the terrorist attacks.
Although the attacks were limited to the United States, passenger traffic dropped 12 percent in September among European and East Asian airlines compared with a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Passenger and freight traffic was off about 30 percent for North American carriers.
Already, 200,000 of the 4 million airline employees worldwide have lost their jobs, the labor group said. The IATA has said the industry would lose $7 billion this year.
Even airlines that were healthy are now struggling.
British Airways said profit fell by 85 percent recently in what it called “tough market conditions.” Scandinavian Airlines System said it would eliminate 2,500 jobs and reduce seating capacity by 5 percent.
The international airline industry’s setbacks also are hurting the Washington area.
Sabena operated seven flights a week out of Washington Dulles International Airport.
Swissair, the airline that became a symbol for Switzerland but announced it will fail without immediate government or investor assistance, also operates seven flights weekly out of Dulles.
Aer Lingus plans to close its hub at Baltimore-Washington International Airport Nov. 26 as financial problems mount.
John White, spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration, which manages BWI, is sympathetic toward customers such as Aer Lingus.
“Considering September 11 and the industry right now, we understand they had some tough choices to make,” Mr. White said.
Passenger traffic was down 25 percent at BWI in September. Until then, BWI was one of the fastest-growing airports in the nation.
Domestic airlines with large presences in the Washington area also are suffering.
US Airways, the largest tenant at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, is flying to only nine destinations from the airport since September 11. Previously, the airline flew 130 daily flights to 46 destinations.
United Airlines, which operates a hub at Dulles and reported a record $1.16 billion loss in the third quarter of this year, has told its employees it faces bankruptcy unless business improves soon.
“The airports, as well as the airlines, are still recovering from the events of September 11,” said Tom Sullivan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates both Dulles and Reagan National airports. “We’re running about 40 percent of what we did before September 11 at National. Dulles is up to about 90 percent of what we were prior to September 11.”

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