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Sabena Airlines Logo.svg
FoundedMay 23, 1923 (1923-05-23)
Ceased operationsNovember 7, 2001 (2001-11-07)
HubsBrussels Airport
Frequent-flyer programQualiflyer
Airport loungeSabena lounge Qualiflyer Lounges
Fleet sizeat time of bankruptcy: 87 (+15 orders)
DestinationsAt time of bankruptcy: 99
Company sloganEnjoy Our Company
HeadquartersBrussels Airport
Zaventem, Belgium
Key people

At time of bankruptcy:
Christophe Müller (CEO),

Jean Louis Herremans (CFO)
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Sabena Airlines Logo.svg
FoundedMay 23, 1923 (1923-05-23)
Ceased operationsNovember 7, 2001 (2001-11-07)
HubsBrussels Airport
Frequent-flyer programQualiflyer
Airport loungeSabena lounge Qualiflyer Lounges
Fleet sizeat time of bankruptcy: 87 (+15 orders)
DestinationsAt time of bankruptcy: 99
Company sloganEnjoy Our Company
HeadquartersBrussels Airport
Zaventem, Belgium
Key people

At time of bankruptcy:
Christophe Müller (CEO),

Jean Louis Herremans (CFO)

The Societé Anonyme Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne, (French; "Belgian Corporation for Air Navigation Services"), better known internationally by the acronym Sabena or SABENA, was the national airline of Belgium from 1923 to 2001, with its base at Brussels National Airport. After its bankruptcy in 2001, the newly formed SN Brussels Airlines took over part of Sabena's assets in February 2002, which became Brussels Airlines after a merger with Virgin Express in March 2007. The airline's corporate headquarters were located in the Sabena House on the grounds of Brussels Airport in Zaventem.[1]



SABENA began operations on 23 May 1923 as the national carrier of Belgium. The airline was created by the Belgian government after their predecessor SNETA (Syndicat national pour l'étude des transports aériens) - formed in 1919 to pioneer commercial aviation in Belgium - ceased operations. The first commercial flight of Sabena was operated between Brussels and London (UK) on 1 July 1923 via Ostend. Services to Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Strasbourg (France) were launched on 1 April 1924. The Strasbourg service was extended to Basle (Switzerland) on 10 June 1924. Amsterdam (Netherlands) was added on 1 September 1924, and Hamburg (Germany) followed on 1 May 1929 via Antwerp, Düsseldorf, and Essen.

Belgian Congo[edit]

When Sabena was created, the airline was partly funded by Belgians in the Belgian Congo colony who lost their air service, an experimental passenger and cargo company (LARA) between Léopoldville, Lisala, and Stanleyville a year earlier and who expected the new Belgian national airline to fill this gap. On 12 February 1925, Sabena pioneered a long haul across Africa to Leopoldville, capital of the Belgian Congo. Throughout their history, Sabena had a long tradition of service to African destinations. For a long time, these were the only profitable routes served by the airline.

Sabena used landplanes for their Congo operations and a program of aerodrome construction was initiated in the Congo. This was finished in 1926 and Sabena immediately began flights within the Belgian colony, the main route being Boma-Léopoldville-Élisabethville, a 2,288 km (1,422 mi) route over dense jungle. First, flights were operated with De Havilland DH.50s, although these were quickly replaced with the larger Handley Page W.8f, which had three engines and offered ten seats.

By 1931 SABENA's fleet, including the aircraft used on the Congo network, totalled 43 aircraft. Their mainstay type was the Fokker F.VIIB with a lesser number of smaller Fokker 7A and 14 Handley-Page types. They also flew British Westland Wessex aircraft.

Sabena occasionally flew to tropical Africa, Belgium's Congo colony, but mostly these aircraft were shipped out. There was no direct flight yet between Belgium and their colony. As the 1930s progressed, SABENA cooperated with Air France and Deutsche Luft Hansa, who also had interests in routes to destinations across Africa.

SABENA's first long-haul flight to the Congo occurred on 12 February 1935 and took five and a half days, for which SABENA used a Fokker F-VII/3m aircraft. The following year, SABENA purchased the Savoia-Marchetti SM.73 airliner. With a speed of 300 km/h (200 mph), it reduced the journey time taken to only four days, and the SABENA service ran on alternate weeks to an Air Afrique service.[citation needed]

Expansion in Europe[edit]

In Europe, SABENA opened services to Copenhagen and Malmö in 1931. A route to Berlin was initiated in 1932. The mainstay pre-war airliner that SABENA used in Europe, was the successful Junkers Ju-52/3m airliner. The airline's pre-war routes covered almost 6,000 km within Europe. While the Brussels Haren airport was Sabena's main base, the company also operated services from other Belgian airports, and had a domestic network that was mainly used by businessmen who wanted to be in their coastal villas for the weekend.

In 1938, the airline purchased the new Savoia-Marchetti SM.83, a development of the S.M. 73 with a speed of 435 km/h (270 mph), although it flew services at a cruising speed of about 400 km/h (250 mph).


At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, SABENA's fleet totalled 18 aircraft. Their mainstay fleet type was the Savoia-Marchetti SM.73 airliner (they had 11 of the type) and the Junkers Ju-52/3m airliner (they had five). SABENA also had just taken delivery of two Douglas DC-3s.

During the war the airline managed to maintain their Belgian Congo routes, but all European services ceased.


Douglas DC-3 of Sabena in 1949
Sabena Douglas DC-6B arriving at Manchester Airport from New York in 1955

After the Second World War, in 1946 SABENA resumed operating a network of intra-European scheduled services. The fleet initially consisted mainly of Douglas DC-3s. There were thousands of surplus C-47 Dakotas (the military variant of the DC-3) available to help airlines restart operations after the war. The airline now flew under the name of SABENA - Belgian World Airlines.

SABENA started their first transatlantic route to New York City on 4 June 1946, initially using unpressurised Douglas DC-4 airliners, which were augmented and later replaced by Douglas DC-6Bs. The DC-4s, followed by the DC-6s also restarted the airline's traditional route to the Belgian Congo. SABENA were first to introduce transatlantic schedules from the North of England, when the airline's DC-6B OO-CTH inaugurated their Brussels-Manchester-New York route on 28 October 1953.

The Convair 240 was introduced in 1949 to partially replace the DC-3s that until then had flown most European services. As of 1956, improved Convair 440 "Metropolitan" twins began replacing the Convair 240 twins and were used successfully well into the 1960s between European regional destinations.

In 1957, the long-range Douglas DC-7C was introduced for long-haul routes but this plane would begin to be supplanted after only three years by the jet age. It remained in service on the transatlantic route until 1962.

On 3 June 1954, a Sabena-operated DC-3 on a cargo flight from the UK to Yugoslavia was strafed by a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, killing the radio operator and wounding both the captain and engineer. Co-pilot Douglas Wilson managed to land in Austria but the plane suffered significant damage.[2]

For the 1958 world exposition in Brussels, Sabena leased two Lockheed Super Constellations from Seaboard World Airlines, using them mainly on transatlantic routes. In the same period, there were experiments with helicopter passenger service using Sikorsky S-58 aircraft from Brussels to Antwerp, Rotterdam, Eindhoven and the Paris heliport at Issy-les-Moulineaux.


Revenue Passenger-Kilometers, scheduled flights only, in millions
Source: ICAO Digest of Statistics for 1950-55, IATA World Air Transport Statistics 1960-2000
Sabena Boeing 707-329 in April 1960, shortly after delivery.
A Sabena Boeing 747-100 seen in 1976.
A Sabena Airbus A310 seen in 1985.

1960 saw the introduction of the Boeing 707-320 intercontinental jet for trans-Atlantic flights to New York. SABENA was mainland Europe's first airline to operate a jet across the Atlantic (BOAC - now British Airways - had been flying jet transatlantic services using the de Havilland Comet 4 since 4 October 1958). Tragically, one of SABENA's aircraft became the first Boeing 707 to crash while in commercial service when Flight 548 crashed while preparing to land at Brussels on 15 February 1961. The United States Figure Skating Team was aboard the aircraft, en route from New York to Prague via Brussels to compete in a figure skating championship.

Six Caravelle jetliners were introduced on all medium-haul routes in Europe from February 1961, being flown on most routes alongside the Convair 440s, until the early 1970s.

1960 and 1961 saw a major upheaval for SABENA in the Congo. Widespread rioting against Belgian colonials in the months leading up to, and after the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, caused thousands of Belgians to flee the country. The Belgian government commandeered SABENA's entire long haul fleet to get the refugees back to Europe. Independence also meant the end of the impressive regional network of routes that the airline had built up in the Congo since 1924. When the new republic began its own airline, Air Congo, in June 1961, SABENA held 30 percent of that airline's shares.

The Douglas DC-6B remained in service with SABENA in the mid-1960s although they were no longer used on the airline's main routes. The Boeing 707s and Caravelles became the mainstay types during this decade.

Boeing 727-100s were introduced on important European routes from 1967 in a unique colour scheme; the fin markings incorporated bare-metal rudder and white engine colours. The only other aircraft to have its own special markings was the Douglas DC-10.

At this time Fokker F27 Friendships entered service between regional Belgian airports and European destinations such as London Heathrow.

1971 saw the introduction of the Boeing 747-100 on transatlantic routes flying alongside the Boeing 707-320Cs. SABENA, like many other trans-Atlantic airlines, was satisfied with the Boeing 707s. For commercial reasons they recognised that they had to buy jumbo jets for their prestige services, notably New York JFK and as of the mid-seventies, Chicago O'Hare. Sabena purchased only two first generation jumbo jets and they continued to fly the 707 into the late 1970s.

As of 1973, the Boeing 727s on the European network were replaced by the Boeing 737-200.

The Douglas DC-10-30 entered service in 1974. In total, Sabena purchased five of these convertible (Passengers and/or freight) wide-body jets.

In 1984 Airbus A310s were introduced on routes that had high passenger density. This aircraft type also introduced a modernisation of the 1973 Sabena livery, in which a lighter blue was used and the titles on the fuselage were in a more modern style.

In June 1986 the first of two Boeing 747-300 aircraft joined the fleet, eventually replacing the older 747-100.

In an advertisement in National Geographic June 1982 (volume 161, no. 6) Sabena prided itself with a superior inflight service. "And unlike most European airlines Sabena still offers First Class service within Europe and all the way through." This advertisement also states that "Sabena flies to 76 destinations on 4 continents" and uses the slogan "belgian world airlines" (written with no capital letters).

In 1989 Sabena invited Belgian fashion designer Olivier Strelli to create a new range of uniforms for their cabin crews.


A Sabena Boeing 737 at Dublin Airport in 1995.

A new name, Sabena World Airlines, and colours were introduced for the 1990s. The new livery had an overall white colour and the white circle tail logo in blue on the fin. A large "Sabena" title covered the fuselage in light blue and the name "Belgian World Airlines" was at times just visible, though the title was also painted on the fuselage in small, clear letters. The 1990s saw further fleet type renewal; the DC-10-30s were replaced with twin-engined Airbus A330 and the Boeing 747s with four-engined Airbus A340.

After the liberalisation of the airline industry and the Gulf War, it became apparent that Sabena had little chance of surviving on its own in this very competitive market. The Belgian government, the main shareholder of the company, began searching for a suitable partner.

Sabena remained in a poor financial state, and year after year the Belgian government had to cover losses. The government was however prevented from providing new funds due to EU State Aid rules.

Since the 1980s, when it was believed that the airline was in deep financial trouble, the Belgian government tried to find a suitable investor. Around 1987, SAS tried to merge with the carrier, but the merger was blocked by the Belgian authorities. In 1989, British Airways and KLM purchased stakes in the carrier, which were later sold back to the Belgian government. In 1993, Air France purchased a large minority stake in Sabena, which it sold soon after. In 1995, Swissair purchased a 49 percent stake in Sabena.

In 1993 Sabena's head office was in the Air Terminus building on Rue Cardinal Mercier in Brussels.[3]

In 1994, Paul Rusesabagina, a manager for Sabena-owned hotels in the former Belgian territory of Rwanda, sheltered over 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus at the Hôtel des Mille Collines of Kigali, saving them from being slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia during the Rwandan genocide (this is depicted in the motion picture Hotel Rwanda).[4]


A Sabena Boeing 737-500 in 2000.
Sabena BAe 146 at Birmingham, 2001

In March and April 1998 two McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 aircraft joined the fleet and long-haul destinations as Newark, Montreal and São Paulo were (re)introduced.

1999 saw new colours introduced in the SABENA fleet, beginning with an Airbus A340. One of the latest fleet types that SABENA has introduced, right after the A321 and A320 is the A319 which saw service in 2000. These new planes were part of a record-order of 36 Airbuses, imposed on SABENA when under Swissair management.

After an airline recession and the effects on the airline industry of the September 11 attacks in 2001, all airlines that flew across the Atlantic suffered. Swissair had pledged to invest millions in SABENA, but failed to do so, partly because the airline had financial problems itself, having declared bankruptcy one month prior. SABENA operated its final flight on 7 November 2001. The company filed for legal protection against its creditors on 3 October, and went into liquidation on 6 November 2001. Fred Chaffart, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sabena, read a declaration on this day to explain the decision. A group of investors managed to take over Delta Air Transport, one of SABENA's subsidiaries, and transformed it into SN Brussels Airlines.

November 7, 2001, was the final day of operations for Sabena. Flight 690 from Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, to Brussels via Cotonou, Benin, was the last Sabena flight to land in Brussels. An Airbus A340-300 registered as OO-SCZ operated the flight.

The Belgian Parliament formed a committee to investigate the reasons behind the bankruptcy of SABENA and the involvement of Switzerland's flag carrier. At the same time, the company's administrator investigated possible legal steps against Swissair, and its successors in interest Swiss International Airlines and Lufthansa.


SN Brussels Airlines BAe 146 in the former Sabena livery at London Heathrow Airport in 2002.

In 2006, the Belgian government, a former major shareholder of SABENA, filed criminal charges against the former Swissair management. The former Swissair management was condemned by the judges.[5]

On 16 January 2007 the Belgian - Flemish news program Terzake reported that during the nineties, several members of the board were paid large sums illegally through a SABENA affiliate in Bermuda. When Paul Reutlinger became the CEO of the company, he stopped the illegal payments. The program goes on to state that this might be the explanation why the Belgian board members remained quiet when it became apparent that Swissair was exploiting SABENA and, eventually, drove the company into bankruptcy.

On December 14, 2007, Georges Jaspis, a former World War II pilot in No. 609 Squadron RAF and the SABENA pilot with the most flying hours (27,000) died.[citation needed] Captain Jaspis was the pilot who inaugurated the Manchester to New York service in October 1953 and who collected the first Sabena Boeing 707 and 747. He had escaped Belgium during the war and made his way to England where he joined the Royal Air Force. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was buried in Opprebais, a village south-east of Brussels on December 19, 2007. The Belgian military attended and a flypast of four F-16 jets in missing man formation was made.

Reasons for bankruptcy[edit]

The reasons for SABENA's bankruptcy are numerous. One of the direct causes was Swissair not living up to their contractual obligations and failing to inject necessary funds into the company. This was because at the time Swissair was having its own financial problems. During the so-called "Hotel agreement", signed on July 17, 2001, Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt met with Swissair boss Mario Corti, who agreed to inject €258 million into SABENA. Mr Corti had made a terrible mistake as the sum was never paid, due to Swissair's own financial problems. The purchase of 34 new Airbus planes, imposed by the Swiss, was a burden SABENA could not cope with.

After the bankruptcy, a parliamentary commission in Belgium was established to investigate the demise of the airline. The Belgian politicians got a part of the blame; Rik Daems, who, at the time, was Minister of Public Enterprises and Participations, Telecommunication and Middle Classes, received most criticism due to his lack of effort. Swissair itself went bankrupt in October of that year.


Flights to or from Europe[edit]

The crash site of the DC-4 in Newfoundland.

Flights in the Belgian colonies[edit]


Sabena's fleet consisted of the following aircraft at the time of the bankruptcy in November 2001:

On order but never delivered:

Historical aircraft[edit]



This were the destinations served by Sabena at the moment of bankruptcy in 2001, some flights were operated by Delta Air Transport, Schreiner Airways and Sobelair:[35] Dublin, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Chennai, Edinburgh, Tokyo-Narita, Glasgow, Leeds, London-City, Manchester, Newcastle, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Oslo-Gardermoen, Stockholm-Arlanda, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Berlin-Tempelhof, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, Munich, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Luxembourg, Geneva, Bucharest, Sofia, Prague, Budapest, Moscow-Vnukovo, Vienna, Bologna, Catania, Florence, Milan-Linate, Milan-Malpensa, Naples, Turin, Venice, Verona, Athens, Istanbul, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Bilbao, Madrid, Malaga, Seville, Valencia, Faro, Lisbon, Porto, Casablanca, Boston, Washington-Dulles, Chicago, New York-JFK, Dallas/Fort Worth, Montreal-Trudeau, Dakar, Bamako, Ouagadougou, Lomé, Lagos, Banjul, Monrovia, Conakry, Cotonou, Abidjan, Douala, Luanda, Kinshasa, Kigali, Entebbe, Nairobi, Yaoundé

Historical destinations[edit]


Algiers, Ankara, Brazzaville, Bujumbura, Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kano, Kilimanjaro, the entire domestic network in Congo before 1960, Libreville, Lusaka, Niamey, Nouakchott, Sal, Tripoli, Tunis


Bangkok, Jakarta, Jeddah, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Mumbai, Singapore, Tehran


Ajaccio, Barcelona, Basel, Bremen, Ljubljana, London-Gatwick, London-Heathrow, Paris-Orly, Palma de Mallorca, Rome, Saint-Petersburg, Sheffield, Zurich

North America

Anchorage, Atlanta, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, Detroit Metropolitan, Toronto-Pearson, Mexico City, Montreal-Mirabel, Newark

Latin America

Buenos Aires, Montevideo, São Paulo, Santiago de Chile, Guatemala-City, Nassau

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Von Schreiber, Sylvia. "Organisierte Pleite." Der Spiegel. 26 November 2001. "Wenige Stunden vorher geschah noch weit Merkwürdigeres: Polizisten der Brüsseler "Aufspürungsbrigade 4" drangen in die Privatwohnungen von vier Managern und in das Firmengebäude Sabena House am Flughafen Zaventem ein."
  2. ^ "Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  3. ^ "World Airline Directory." Flight International. 24–30 March 1993. 119.
  4. ^ Rwandan Hotel Is Still Haunted by Horror, Marc Lacey, February 28, 2005, New York Times.
  5. ^ "Sabena finally gets justice - the judges felt that the demise of Sabena was a consequence of non-compliance by Swissair contractual obligations - DBNet report January 2011 accessed 26 December 2011". 2011-01-28. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  6. ^ "17 September 1946 accident at the Aviation Safety Network". 1946-09-17. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  7. ^ "ASN Aircraft accident Douglas DC-4-1009 OO-CBG Gander, NF". 1946-09-18. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  8. ^ "March 1948 crash near Heathrow at the Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  9. ^ "December 1949 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1949-12-18. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  10. ^ "October 1953 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1953-10-14. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  11. ^ "December 1953 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  12. ^ "1954 military occurrence at the Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  13. ^ "1954 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1955-02-13. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  14. ^ "Flight 548 at the Aviation Safety Network". 1961-02-15. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  15. ^ "1968 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1968-07-13. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  16. ^ "1970 incident at the Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  17. ^ "1970 hijacking at the Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  18. ^ "February 1978 incident at the Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  19. ^ "April 1978 incident at the Aviation Safety Network". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  20. ^ "1998 incident at the Aviation Safety Network". 1998-08-29. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  21. ^ "2000 hijacking at the Aviation Safety Network". 2000-10-13. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  22. ^ Eismont, Maria. "Gunfire Damages Sabena Jet in Burundi, abc News". Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  23. ^ "1943 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1943-01-01. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  24. ^ "March 1944 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1944-03-25. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  25. ^ "April 1944 accident at the Aviation Safety Network". 1944-04-03. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  26. ^ "1945 incident at the Aviation Safety Network". 1945-12-14. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  27. ^ "January 1947 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1947-01-07. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  28. ^ "December 1947 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1947-12-24. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  29. ^ "May 1948 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1948-05-12. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  30. ^ "August 1948 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1948-08-31. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  31. ^ "August 1949 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1949-08-27. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  32. ^ "1951 accident at the Aviation Safety Network". 1951-07-24. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  33. ^ "1952 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1952-02-04. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  34. ^ "1958 crash at the Aviation Safety Network". 1958-05-18. Retrieved 2014-07-23. 
  35. ^
  36. ^ Airline Route, taken from OAG. 1974: SABENA International Network 22 December 2008.

External links[edit]