A six-day strike by baggage handlers at Brussels Airport caused chaos for thousands of passengers, but such a situation could be avoided in future if a third competing company were to be brought in by the airport’s operating company, BAC. That’s the conclusion of travel experts consulted by De Morgen and other media as the strike ended and the airport situation returned to normal, though some checked-in bags remain to be claimed, and half of the autumn holiday is over for families with children.
Brussels Airport is currently serviced by two baggage handling companies, Swissport – which continued operating normally – and Aviapartner, which was involved in the wildcat strike. Both companies, however, have a record of industrial action.
A third competitor, experts said, would ease the situation. “There’s only one way to change the situation with the baggage handlers,” said transport economist Eddy Van de Voorde of the university of Antwerp. “That is to bring in a third player at Zaventem. That would calm the market and discourage strikes, because more alternatives would then be available.”
The two companies, experts said, are competing themselves to death in a “race to the bottom”. Last year Ryanair switched its contract from Swissport to Aviapartner when the latter cut its price to the bone. The company now has €50 million of debt, not counting the losses involved in the latest strike action.
That action ended when Aviapartner promised new temp staff, the extension of expiring contracts and the conversion of some temp contracts to permanent employment. But there are doubts as to whether the company’s financial situation can permit it to fulfil those promises.
“Their accounts as so red you have to ask yourself, can Aviapartner still meet the admittedly justified demands of its staff,” commented Luk De Wilde, an airline specialist. “I don’t think management will be able.”
For any change to take place would require political intervention. Federal mobility minister François Bellot pointed out that under existing rules, a third competitor can only be introduced if the airport handles more than 24 million passengers a year for two years. That number was exceeded for the first time last year.
According to De Wilde, BAC also has a degree of responsibility. The company, he said, “makes €70 million in profit. They invest heavily in making the airport as agreeable as possible. It’s become a huge shopping centre. But they couldn’t care less about what’s happening behind the scenes, even though that has a huge influence on passengers. We’re seeing that now.”