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Video: Atomium revisits glory days of Belgian airline Sabena

20:21 08/12/2016
A new exhibition on Belgium’s former flag-carrier takes you back to the time when flying was the height of stylish travel

The Atomium is currently host to an exhibition detailing the rise and fall of Sabena, Belgium's fabled airline. Culled meticulously from private and public collections are a great variety of original objects, several scale airplane models, uniforms, posters, photos, movies and some gadgets that immerse the visitor in the engaging 78 years of history.

Special attention is paid to the leading players in this adventure, the more than 10,000 employees who called themselves the Sabéniens. At the exhibit opening, some of the Sabéniens recounted the strong bonds they forged working for the airline when the S on the tail meant not only Sabena but also Service and Style.

Cécile Gosez, 27 years with the airline as stewardess and then purser, told The Bulletin: "It was a real gift, a bunch of us in our 20s flying directly to Africa, the Far East and South America. It was fabulous.

"I remember my first trip to Mexico. The captain said to us: 'Right, this is the first time here for some of you, let's rent a car and go see the pyramids of Teotihuacan.' And there I was in the middle of the Aztec civilization and I thought, I can't believe I'm paid to be here.

"In Africa Sabena meant a lot, in the little cities where no one else was flying, when Sabena wasn't coming anymore it meant that very dangerous events were going on. When we came back, the population said: OK, thing are getting back to normal."

Ingrid Arnoeyts, stewardess for 18 years, says: "My best memories are of the friendships between us. Once you are an air hostess you stay air hostess for the rest of your life."

Yves Danckers, 29 years a DC10 pilot, owes his family life to the airline: "32 years ago on a flight to the Far East, there was a lovely flight attendant who eventually became my wife. We're still together and of our three boys two are flying, so we are a Sabena family and we are still in aviation."

Philippe Goris, a steward and then purser for 22 years, remembers most fondly: "You represented the company, you were Sabena and you were an ambassador for your country.

"In those days prices were uniform, if you flew from Brussels to Rome on Sabena or Alitalia, the price was the same - so it was the service that had to make a difference.

"Even until the end, Sabena hired famous fashion designers (Courreges, Strelli) to design the uniforms. Styling was very important, not just styling of the uniforms but styling of the aircraft, and of the airline offices. Of course, nowadays there are no more airline offices, people buy their tickets online."

How did it all start?

In 1919 pilot George Nélis, with the enthusiastic support of King Albert I (who was consistently in favour of developing new technologies - the first radio broadcast in Belgium was in 1914 from Laeken Palace) promoted the development of a national airline - and a national syndicate (Sneta) is set up to develop plans.

Meanwhile, in 1920, regular flights start taking place between Brussels and London and Brussels and Paris. In 1923, Sneta completes its task and the state creates an airline (the Société Anonyme Belge de l'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne, a meaningful but long-winded name which was reduced to its acronym Sabena) capitalised with six million francs, making it the third oldest airline in the world (KLM and Avianca were founded in 1919). The first flights are cargo only and fly from Brussels to Lympne (UK) with a stop in Ostend.

In 1924 the first passenger flights occur between Brussels and Strasbourg. In 1925 a three-man crew links Brussels with Leopoldville (Congo) in 75 flight hours, spread over 51 days. In 1929 the company buys 23 Fokkers configured for passengers and luggage and the European network grows.

In 1935 regular service between Belgium and the Congo is established with a flight time of 56 hours spread over five and a half days. DC3s, then DC6s and 7s, followed by Caravelles, DC10s, Boeing 707s, and 747s among others take Sabena around the world, especially in Africa and to a lesser extent the Americas.

In the mid-1950s the airline develops a city centre to city centre helicopter service between Brussels and Antwerp, Liège and Ostende and then into France, Germany and the Netherlands. For instance, the Brussels-Paris helicopter took off from the Allée Verte on the north side of the pentagon to land at the Invalides in central Paris.

Despite its growing network (10,000 employees in 1958 and a million passengers in 1964), Sabena was in deficit starting in 1948 and depended on guarantees from the state. Deficits in the 1970s reached one billion francs.

In 1990 KLM and British Airways briefly owned 20% each of the airline. Then in 1992 Air France owned 37.5% for two years and finally in 1995 Sabena merged with Swissair until Swissair's bankruptcy in 2001 doomed the Belgian airline.

Sabena: Travel in Style, Atomium, until 10 September 2017

Written by Richard Harris



When Sabena went bust, I did a happy dance. When I saw the staff hugging each other and crying, I just thought of all the misery they have caused with their never ending strikes that always brought the whole airport to a stop. SeaFrance had the same problem. Entitled employees that think the world, or the State actually, owed them a living. Good riddance to both.

Dec 8, 2016 10:15

Mike, we can ALWAYS count on you to have something negative to say. Life must be a terrible burden for you.

Dec 9, 2016 16:54

Perhaps you should have had some travel plans ruined while they blocked the access to the airport in fancy dress and party mode while their customers did the crying? Seriously, when I saw them crying and hugging each other, the karma sprang to mind. Oh, and your comment was?

Dec 10, 2016 21:03

It's tough being a victim Mike.

Dec 11, 2016 12:57

It's even better getting even. :-)

Dec 12, 2016 10:46

Donald, is that you pretending to be Mikek1300gt?

Dec 12, 2016 11:19