A Brussels Airlines plane heading to the Portuguese city of Faro took off from Brussels Airport yesterday, the first passenger flight to leave the airport since suicide bombings on 22 March ripped through its check-in counters.
Security at the airport was tight with new check-in procedures for passengers introduced.
Two other planes were scheduled to leave later last night – Brussels Airlines flights to Athens and Turin, Italy. The three flights were a test run for a European aviation hub that used to handle 600 flights a day and plans to slowly climb back to normal capacity.
A passenger on the Athens flight, Loukas Bassoukos, said the experience was “a bit weird”.
“So many people died here. But I think we can overcome this. I think we slowly have to start trusting the security controls,” he said.
Arnaud Feist, chief executive of Brussels Airport Co, had said ahead of the flights that they were a symbolic “sign of hope” following “the darkest days in the history of aviation in Belgium”.
Yesterday, he thanked employees for their courage, solidarity and the “impressive work carried out in so little time”.
“We are more than an airport ... We are a family more bound together than ever,” he said at a ceremony.
“It will take time to accept what happened and more time to get over the pain,” Mr Feist added as the flight for Faro took off. “But we will never forget.”
Damage to the airport was extensive when double suicide bombs exploded near its crowded check-in counters 12 days ago, killing 16 people. Another bombing that day on a Brussels subway train killed 16 more. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.
Mr Feist said Belgium’s biggest airport should be back up to about 20 per cent of capacity today and able to process 800 passengers an hour. He said on Saturday that he hoped full service at the airport could be restored by the end of June or the beginning of July in time for the summer holiday season.
However, traffic may take time to return to its previous pace. Delta Airlines said on Saturday that it was suspending service between Atlanta and Brussels until March 2017.
Police yesterday conducted spot checks of vehicles before they arrived. A large white tent was set up outside the terminal to screen travellers’ IDs, travel documents and bags before they were allowed to enter a specially built area for check-in.
A drop-off parking area outside the terminal was closed down and authorities said there would be no rail or public transport access to the airport for the foreseeable future.
The bombers entered the check-in area with suitcases packed with explosives and nails, and the resulting blasts collapsed the airport’s ceiling and shattered windows.
The attacks have prompted a wider discussion among aviation authorities in many countries over whether to impose routine security checks at the entry to airport terminals