Infobox Airline

destinations= At time of bankruptcy: 99
company_slogan="Enjoy Our Company"
out of business=2001
headquarters= Sabena House Brussels, Belgium
key_people=CEO at time of bankruptcy: Christophe Müller
hubs=Brussels Airport
lounge=Sabena lounge
alliance=Qualiflyer (now defunct)
fleet_size=at time of bankruptcy: 84

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 then became Brussels Airlines.



SABENA is short for "Société Anonyme Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne" or "Belgian company for exploiting aerial navigation". It began operations on 23 May 1923 as the Belgian national carrier. It had been created by the Belgian government after its predecessor SNÉTA ("Syndicat national pour l'étude des transports aériens") which was formed in 1919 to pioneer commercial aviation in Belgium ceased operations. The first paying flight was from Rotterdam to Strasbourg via Brussels on 1 April 1924. Regular flights to Amsterdam and Basle via Strasbourg were initiated by 1923 with further routes to London, Bremen, and Copenhagen by 1924.

Belgian Congo

When SABENA was created it was partly funded by Belgians in the Belgian Congo colony who lost their air service - an experimental passenger and cargo company (LARA) between Kinshasa, Lisala, and Stanleyville - a year earlier and expected the new Belgian national airline to fill this gap. So from 1925 SABENA pioneered a route to Africa and to Belgium's interests in the Belgian Congo. Throughout its history SABENA had a long tradition with Africa flights - for a long time these were the only profitable flights.

SABENA chose to use landplanes for its Congo operations and a program of aerodrome construction in the Congo began. This was finished in 1926 and SABENA immediately began flights within the Congo, the main route being Boma-Léopoldville-Élisabethville, a 2,288 km (1,422 mi) route over dense jungle. First, flights were with De Havilland DH.50 aircraft, although these were quickly replaced with the larger Handley Page W.8f airliners, which had three engines and ten seats.

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

SABENA flew aircraft out to Tropical Africa, Belgium's Congo colony, occasionally, but mostly these aircraft were shipped out. There was no direct flight yet between Belgium and its colony. As the 1930s progressed, SABENA cooperated with Air France and Deutsche Lufthansa (who also had interests in routes over Africa and the Congo) on over-flight rights.

SABENA's first long-haul flight to the Congo occurred 23 February 1935 and took five and a half days. It was flown by a SABENA Fokker F7b on a direct service. The following year, SABENA purchased the Savoia-Marchetti SM.73. At a speed of 300 km/h (200 mph), it reduced the time taken to only four days, and the SABENA service ran on alternate weeks to an Air Afrique service.

Expansion in Europe

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 the Second World War in 1939, SABENA's fleet totalled 18 aircraft. Its mainstay fleet type was the Savoia-Marchetti SM.73 airliner (it had 11 of the type) and the Junkers Ju-52/3m airliner (it had 5.) SABENA also had just taken delivery of two Douglas DC-3s.

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


After the Second World War in 1946, SABENA's fleet mainly consisted 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 SABENA - Belgian World Airlines.

SABENA started its first transatlantic route to New York on 4 June 1947, initially using Douglas DC-4s which were quickly replaced by DC-6Bs. These 'fours' and 'six-Bs' 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 DC-6B OO-CTH inaugurated their Manchester to New York route on 28 October 1953.

The Convair 240 was introduced in 1949 to partially replace the DC-3's that until then flew most European services. As of 1956, Convair 440 'Metropolitan' twins started to replace the Convair 240 twins and were used successfully well into the 1960s across European regional destinations.

In 1957, the long-haul DC-7C was introduced for long-haul routes but this plane would be supplanted after only three years by the jet age.

On 3 June 1954 a Sabena operated C-47 Dakota 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. [ [ Aviation Safety Network] ]


1960 saw the introduction of the new Boeing 707-320 intercontinental jet for long-haul 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, the team were 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.

1961 also saw a major upheaval for SABENA in the Congo colony. 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 aircraft remained in use 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, but for commercial reasons recognised it had to buy the new jumbo-jets for its prestige services, notably New York JFK and as of the mid-seventies, Chicago O'Hare. SABENA purchased only two first generation jumbo-jets and 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.


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 a light blue and the name "Belgian World Airlines" was at times barely visible although 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 four-engined Airbus A340.

Ever since the European Union had decided that by the mid-nineties the European skies were to be considered a common market, meaning that airlines of a European member state would no longer be bound to their own country, it became apparent that SABENA had little chances to survive on its own in this very competitive market. The Belgian government, the main shareholder of the company, began searching for a fit partner.

Sabena remained in a catastrophic financial state. Year after year, the government had to fill the losses. In a rapidly changing European Union, it became clear this government funding was unsustainable. Consecutive governments charged themselves with looking for a fit partner for the airline. Interesting to note was the unwillingness of the board to enter into talks with Dutch flag carrier KLM. There was a fear in the French speaking part of Belgium that French would be overpowered by the Dutch language within Sabena. The predominantly French-speaking board of directors prevented this from happening.

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 1994, Paul Rusesabagina, a manager for Sabena-owned hotels in the former Belgian colony 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").


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 slightly shorter but of the same family size Airbus 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, 17 aircraft more than what SABENA actually needed.

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 badly.

Swissair had pledged itself to invest millions into SABENA, but failed to do this, partly because the airline had financial problems itself. 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.

The Belgian parliament started a committee to investigate the reasons behind the bankruptcy and the involvement of the Swiss. At the same time, the company's administrator investigated possible legal steps against Swissair, and its successor Swiss International Airlines, the new name of Swissair's subsidiary Crossair.


In 2006, the Belgian government, who had been a major shareholder of SABENA, filed criminal charges against the former Swissair management, the outcome is still pending.However it is highly speculated that nothing will be done.

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 located 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 Second World War pilot in No. 609 Squadron RAF and the Sabena pilot with the most flying hours (27,000) died. 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 DFC (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 4 F16 jets in missing man formation was made.

Reasons for bankruptcy

The reasons for SABENA's bankruptcy are numerous. The direct cause was Swissair not living up to their contractual obligations and failing to inject necessary funds into the company. 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. The sum was never paid. The purchase of 34 new Airbus planes, imposed by the Swiss, was a burden SABENA could not cope with.Fact|date=January 2007

After the bankruptcy, a parliamentary commission in Belgium was established to investigate the demise of the airline. The commission came to the conclusion that Swissair took the major part of the blame for the bankruptcy of Sabena. The Swiss "plundered" the airline, according to the commission. The Belgian politicians got a part of the blame as well but no minister was called by name. While Swissair itself goes bankrupt in October.


On 8 May 1972 a Boeing 707 was hijacked by 4 hijackers at Ben-Gurion International Airport,Tel Aviv . The four hijackers demanded release of prisoners. Two hijackers were shot and killed by military personnel, dressed as ground engineers. One passenger died 8 days later as a result of her wounds.

On 13 October 2000 an Airbus A330 (flight SN689) was hijacked during a flight from Brussels to Abidjan. A Nigerian man being deported from Belgium was released from his restraints, ran to the cockpit and forced the crew to land in Spain. The hijacker was overpowered by Spanish police.


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

Airbus A319-100 - 15 Aircraft + 11 aircraft on order
Airbus A320-200 - 6 Aircraft
Airbus A321-200 - 3 Aircraft
Airbus A330-200 - 6 Aircraft
Airbus A330-300 - 4 Aircraft
Airbus A340-200 - 2 Aircraft
Airbus A340-300 - 2 Aircraft + 4 aircraft on order
Boeing 737-300 - 6 Aircraft
Boeing 737-500 - 5 Aircraft
BAe 146 - 6 Aircraft (operated by Delta Air Transport)
Avro RJ100 - 12 Aircraft (operated by Delta Air Transport)
Avro RJ85 - 14 Aircraft (operated by Delta Air Transport)
ATR-72 200 - 2 Aircraft (operated by Schreiner Airways)

Dash-8 300 - 4 Aircraft (operated by Schreiner Airways)

Destinations (at time of bankruptcy)


Abidjan, Banjul, Bamako, Bujumbura, Casablanca, Conakry, Cotonou, Dakar,Douala, Entebbe, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kigali, Kinshasa, Lagos, Lomé, Luanda, Monrovia, Nairobi, Ouagadougou, Sal, Yaoundé.


Beirut, Chennai, Tel Aviv, Tokyo-Narita


Ajaccio, Athens, Barcelona, Basel, Belfast, Berlin-Tempelhof, Bilbao, Birmingham, Bordeaux, Bologna, Bremen, Bucharest, Budapest, Catania, Copenhagen, Dublin, Dusseldorf, Faro, Florence, Frankfurt, Geneva, Glasgow, Hamburg, Hanover, Helsinki, Istanbul, Leeds/Bradford, Lisbon, Lubljana, Luxembourg, London-City, London-Gatwick, Madrid, Manchester, Milan-Linate, Milan-Malpensa, Moscow, Münich, Nantes, Napels, Nice, Nuremberg, Oslo-Gardemoen, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Paris-Orly, Palma de Mallorca, Porto, Prague, Rome, Saint-Petersburg, Seville, Sheffield, Sofia, Stockholm-Arlanda, Strasbourg, Stuttgart, Turin, Valencia, Venice, Verona, Vienna, Warsaw; Zurich.

North & Latin America

Atlanta, Boston, Chicago-O'Hare, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, Dallas/Forth Worth, Mexico City, Montréal, New York-JFK, Newark, Washington-Dulles.



External links

* [ Sabena Flight Academy]
* [ Sabeniens]
* [ Former Official Website]
* [ Official Virtual Airline]

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