Today, one hundred years ago, one of the most emblematic European airlines came into existence. The Société Anonyme Belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne, Sabena, was founded on May 23rd, 1923, under the auspices of King Albert I. Its first flight took off from Haren airfield just outside Brussels to the British town of Lympe, with a De Havilland DH-9.
On April 1st, 1924, the airline conducted its first commercial flight between Rotterdam and Straatsburg via a stopover in Brussels. More destinations were added gradually such as Basel and London. Sabena took its first flight to Africa in 1925, a key continent for the company’s growth. On the 12th of February 1925, a group conformed by Edmond Thierry, Léopold Roger and Jef de Bruycker started a 51-day journey on a Handley Page W8, christened Princesse Marie-José, to Leopoldville, present day Kinshasa.
After the Second World War, which was a difficult period for Sabena, the company managed to reach full expansion. Flights to Africa were resumed and expanded, and transatlantic flights started up. The workforce quadrupled and the fleet was modernized. But profitability is never really there.
The ensuing decades-long calvary of restructuring, social unrest, government capital injections and failed alliances plagued the company. The airline almost never had positive financial statements, so that in the 1980s, the debt reached 10 billion Belgian Francs.
Sabena was known for its pervasive low levels of capital and a growing debt of two billion euros at the end. The partnership with Swissair brought the acquisition of 49,5% of the Belgian company and then in 2000, the federal government and Swissair concluded an agreement under which the Swiss would eventually own 85% of Sabena’s capital. However, it did not solve the situation.
2001 was a fatal year for both carriers. Sabena is therefore faced with a mountain of debt of almost 100 billion francs and the results are disastrous. Moreover, the 9/11 terrorist attack made the situation even worse and the company could not cover the huge debt accumulated over the previous decades. When the company eventually crashed, about 7,300 people lost their jobs.
Anne Spiritus d’Assess, Judge and President of the Brussels Commercial Court, declared Sabena’s bankruptcy on 6 November at 6:30 pm and the Official State Gazette later published the judgment as dated 7 November 2001.