EGIS: Antwerp and Ostend Bruges Airport – A Tale of Two Airports

In 2011 the Flemish Government opened a tender, looking for companies to aid in the privatisation of the Antwerp and Ostend Bruges airports. EGIS responded to that tender, and in 2013 they were awarded the management of both airports.

It’s a role EGIS was well prepared for, as a French multinational company that is 75% owned by the Caisse des Dépôts Group, and 25% owned by EGIS management. But while both airports are run under the same company, and are based in the same country, they both have very different charms and challenges.

“Antwerp is, of course, a city airport. You have a neighbourhood that includes the port of Antwerp, which is an important port on a European and worldwide level. Around the port of Antwerp and the city of Antwerp there are 400 multinational companies trading in petrochemicals,” explains Marcel Buelens, the CEO of both airports. “There are companies such as BASF and Exxon, there are multinationals making products that need to be transported by boat, sea and air. You have of course the lady’s best friend in Antwerp, which is the diamond industry. You have a big fashion industry in Antwerp, trading a lot with the French and British fashion industry. And of course, you have the city itself, the second biggest city in Belgium with both airport and port being an economic pull for the country. We don’t do much cargo at Antwerp because of the length of the runway, but we do handle parts for ships in the port and Volvo car production, as well as medical charters for transplant organs. It’s not big, but it is important.”

Bruges meanwhile, might be somewhere you initially think of more as a tourist hotspot than a business hub, and to a certain extent, that’s true, as Buelens tells us, “With Bruges, one of our unique selling points is the city of Bruges itself. It receives 8 million visitors a year, of which 17% are British. The city of Bruges has been called the Venice of the North, and with Ostend only 30 km away, that means Bruges can practically say it has its own airport. For us it allows us to not only to sell to outgoing traffic but incoming traffic for the city, and over the last few seasons we’ve been promoting visiting Bruges through the city of Ostend.”

Beyond its appeal as a tourist attraction, however, Ostend Bruges Airport is also set to play a crucial role in the logistics of not just the country, but the entire continent.

“The uniqueness of Ostend Bruges airport, and we see this a lot now in the pre-Brexit discussions we’re having, is that people are looking for logistic ways to make sure products that are imported into the UK will arrive on time,” Buelens points out. “We’re a 24/7 airport, we can do traffic during the night. We have a runway that can receive and allow to take off the biggest aeroplanes in our industry. From a passenger standpoint that is under-utilised, but this year we have 25 to 26 destinations serving 450,000 passengers, which is not a lot. More and more passengers are discovering Ostend has a quick, easy-to-use airport.”

They’re also opening up Ostend’s airport into whole new market sectors, Buelens says, “A new activity we have started in the last two years is private and business aviation. We’ve built a brand-new terminal. It’s a very nice installation and we foresee growth in that sector.”

Buelens adds that it’s a sector that Antwerp Airport is also seeing activity in.

“Antwerp is comparable in size and capability to London City Airport. We have less activity but a developed business and private aviation industry with all the big names in business aviation being represented,” he says. “It’s safe to say that 80% of our activities are business and private aviation-related. We also have one of the biggest pilot schools in Antwerp (e.g. BAFA, EPC), and the passenger activity at Antwerp has tripled in the last four years.”

A Changing World
Having airports in two such very distinctive environments means EGIS has a unique perspective on the rapidly changing environment airports function in and how people’s priorities regarding them are changing.

Antwerp Airport, for instance, originally an airport just outside its host city, has come to find itself being absorbed as the city grows.

“The city has come to the airport,” Buelens says simply. “If you look at pictures from 25 years ago there were very few houses around the airport, but now it’s installed itself around the airport so managing social relations with our neighbours is one of the biggest challenges we have. What we will not do is expand the airport, it will operate within the perimeters it has today.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the development of Antwerp airport is at an end. Far from it.

“We’re not physically expanding,” Buelens says. “We can still modernise the runway and upgrade it but we won’t extend it. We will extend the traffic that goes through the airport, all within the framework of our environmental licence. There are only so many movements we can do during the day, and at night the city airport is closed, but it can still be developed. We will have another record year this year, we can double the number of passengers but then we will have reached the maximum capacity that we will be able to operate.”

Ostend, meanwhile, has a very different looking future.

“Ostend is a 24/7 airport. We will develop that even further,” Buelens tells us. “We’re not creating a Dubai of the North Sea but on the three industries we’re aiming at passengers, freight and business and private charters, we will be able to develop the airport to a couple of million passengers.”

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