Hong Kong aviation

New Hong Kong-backed start-up Air Belgium abruptly cancels flights after failing to get permission to fly over Russia

Low-cost long-haul carrier originally set to fly to Hong Kong on April 30

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 10:39pm

Thousands of passengers could be left scrambling to make alternative travel plans after a new start-up airline backed by Hong Kong investors announced on Wednesday it had cancelled flights until June 3.

Low-cost long-haul carrier Air Belgium said its first flight would not take off on April 30 as expected as it had failed to secure permission to fly over Russia – a standard requirement for airlines.

The company had started selling tickets in April despite not having secured all relevant permits. In response to inquiries from the Post, however, Air Belgium dismissed the notion this was an “oversight”. 

A total of 38 flights set to run between Brussels and Hong Kong will be axed until June 3 at the earliest, when the airline hopes it will be granted access to Russian airspace.

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Hong Kong investor Peter Yip is part of a group of individuals who own a 49 per cent stake in the fledgling carrier.

CEO Niky Terzakis said passengers who had booked Air Belgium tickets could still fly to Hong Kong on different airlines, receive a full refund or defer travel with “financial compensation”.

“This was a hard call to make considering the market expectations, but we take the protection of our travellers’ interests to heart. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to obtain the overflight permit as fast as possible,” Terzakis said. 

“Everything will be done to find a solution for each passenger.”

Such measures are likely to be expensive, with the airline offering unspecified compensation while being at risk of having to pay face value for passengers to fly economy or business class on competitor airlines.

Passengers who opt to delay their trip could receive extra holiday spending money as the cost of a new flight is typically lower than the potential compensation of 600 euros (HK$5,700) – the maximum payout set by the European Union to protect consumer rights.

Air Belgium did not respond to questions about how many passengers were affected. Assuming all seats were filled in each direction, the number of travellers involved would be just over 11,500 people.

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The company was also not connected to a global booking system, a platform nearly every airline and travel agent uses to sell plane tickets, making it more challenging to reach a wider customer base –including individual travellers as well as Chinese tour groups heading to Europe.

Its cheapest tickets, which do not include a baggage allowance, were in some instances more expensive than those of competitors. Cathay Pacific, a full-service airline, was offering promotional fares of HK$4,192 (US$534), compared with Air Belgium’s basic fare of HK$4,498, a review of airfares showed last week.

I can’t wrap my head around these start-up airlines that are run by people with experience in the airline industry yet make such rookie mistakes
Ben Schlappig, air travel expert

Air Belgium will not fly from its country’s main international airport either, unlike Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific. To save money, it will use Brussels South Charleroi airport, located about 60km from the city centre and mostly home to budget carriers.

Professional air travel expert Ben Schlappig, who had planned to fly to Hong Kong on Air Belgium, blasted the airline.

“I can’t wrap my head around these start-up airlines that are run by people with experience in the airline industry yet make such rookie mistakes,” said Schlappig, who runs the One Mile at a Time flight and hotel travel review website.

“Russian airspace permits can be time consuming and challenging to get, though you’d think that’s something they would have cleared up further in advance, given their entire business model relies on being able to use this airspace.”