BRU Airport

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Situated near the town of Brussels (our nation's capital), the airport is surrounded by people who should try to get a life (and some sleep while doing so) instead of lying awake at night, listening to the 'noise' aircraft are making while taking off or landing. Anyway, here are some facts and figures about EBBR/BRU.

The airport hasn't always been near the town of Zaventem. The original airfield was situated near Haren/Evere. The first airfield in Evere was actually built  in 1914 by the German occupying forces, who installed an airfield capable of handling Zeppelins. There were at that time other airfields near the capital (Etterbeek, St.-Agatha-Berchem, Stokkel and Zellik), but they were not as good as the terrain in Evere in terms of accessibility and geography. After the war, the terrain was used by the Belgian Military Aviation, but it soon turned out that the infrastructure could also serve civilian purposes.

First mail service Paris - Evere January 19, 1919 Breguet XIV
First passenger service Paris - Evere February 12, 1919 Farman 'Goliath'

On March 31, 1919 King Albert I signed the memorandum of association of SNETA (Syndicat National pour l'Etude des Transports Aériens), the precursor of SABENA (Société Anonyme Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne). The first Belgian airline was born! The first foreign companies (Compagnie Messageries Aériennes & Handley Page Transport Ltd.) would start using Evere as well. Between the two World Wars, the military and civilian users of the airfield came to an agreement that the military would use the 'Evere' side of the airfield, while the civilians would use the 'Haren' side.

On the first of June 1922, SNETA ceased operations. After all, its aim was to found and promote a national aircraft industry (SABCA - Société Anonyme Belge de Constructions Aéronautiques was founded on the 16th of December 1920 and it's license-built aircraft were mostly bought and flown by SNETA). On the 23rd of May 1923, SABENA was founded. 

SourceSource: Sabena Library and Resources

On May 25, the successor to SNETA operated it's first commercial flight with a de Havilland DH.9. The first brick buildings for the passengers, which replaced the wooden ones, were erected around 1923-1924 (like the Avia-Palace) along with some hangars.

On the twelfth of February 1925, another milestone in the history of the airport was passed when the first flight left Brussels for Léopoldville (Congo), the capital of our old colony. Before that day, all flights were limited to European destinations. Note that the first regular flight between Belgium and Belgian Congo only took place in 1935! But that's not all.

On the 28th of May 1927 Charles Lindbergh landed his 'Spirit of St. Louis' at Haren Airfield, one week after crossing the Atlantic Channel. The third airport terminal next to the second one (Avia-Palace), which had to be built due to an increasing number of passengers, was completed around 1928.

Source: J. Cooman

In 1929 (September 29), the third airport terminal at Haren airfield was opened. This marked the beginning of the third phase in the development of the airport. The second airport terminal was converted into the Avia-Palace, a café/hotel/restaurant, in 1933. It should be noticed that the concept of fixed runways is a more recent evolution in aviation. In the early days, pilots were restricted only by the physical dimensions of the grass airfield (900m in NE/SW direction & 750x1000m in SE/NW direction) and the wind direction. A white circle (50 m in diameter) with a large arrow pointing North was painted on the ground. In the middle of the circle there was a smoke pot indicating the wind direction.

When air traffic began to grow in the thirties, the demand for expansion and modernisation at Haren began to sound louder and louder. Besides commercial aviation (SABENA, Imperial Airways, Air France, KLM, Deutsche Lufthansa, Hillman's Airways and British Continental Airways) there were other companies who operated from Haren, for example SABEPA (aerial photography), AVIATIC and SOCTA (both transport of race pigeons). Due to continual levelling works, the increased number of aircraft operating from Haren and the tail runners in stead of wheels the airport terrain was in a sorry state.

Year Commercial movements Number of passengers Cargo (kg) Mail (kg)
1920 600 ± 500 100 100
1935 11200 46000 1200000 121000

Besides problems with the terrain, the skies above Haren/Evere were getting more and more crowded (commercial/military/leisure aircraft). A Commission (Ministries of Defence and Transport) was installed to investigate the future of Haren/Evere. Its conclusions were abundantly clear: In its current state, the airfield had no future and could not stand up to the competition from neighbouring airports (Schiphol, Le Bourget, Tempelhof, ...). Various fields were investigated (even one in Zaventem!!) but none proved very fitting. In its recommendations, the Commission stated that the most reasonable solution would be to expand Haren. The total investment would be 15,8 million francs (10,2 million Euro today!) and would cover (1936-1939):

- better draining of the field
- purchase 78 ha of land to expand
- improve landing strips & access roads

Despite urgent letters from SABENA and other companies that operated into Haren to the Minister of Transport, Henri Jaspar, the modification works weren't making much progress. In early 1939, the new Minister of Transport Mark unveiled a prestigious plan for Haren/Evere which contained an increase of the airport surface by three times, a new terminal and a direct rail link. The opening of this new airport was scheduled for 1945...

Due to the tension building in Europe caused by the threatening war, timetables were modified and airplanes painted orange with large 'BELGIQUE' titles. From the 14th of February 1940 onward, the SABENA S.83's used Marseille instead of Haren to fly to Congo. The Germans invaded Belgium on the 10th of May 1940 and occupied the Haren airfield on May 17. They expanded Haren and constructed a new airport in Melsbroek, where the Belgian Military Aviation already had a reserve airfield. The two airfields were linked by a taxiway (completed in November 1942). By May 1941, the RAF spotted the first concrete runway (the later 09/27) in Haren. At the Melsbroek 'Fliegerhorst' (as the Germans called the airfield), soon three runways, a building with control tower in farmhouse style and barracks and hangars (camouflaged as houses or farms) were constructed. By March 1943, the three runways (07/25, 12/30 and 02/20) were completed and linked by taxiways.

Runway: Date completed (estimated):
07/25 July 1940 (extended to 1600m by May 1941)
12/30 May 1941 (about 1600m)
02/20 March 1943 (about 2100m)

On the third of September 1944, Haren was liberated and three days later, the first RAF squadrons landed at Haren. Due to the excellent camouflage of the airport and its infrastructure and the fact that the Germans left the infrastructure in relative good shape when they fled, the allies were able to take over the airport without too much reconstruction work. Between September 1944 and October 1945, the British further expanded the runways, taxiways and aprons.

After the cessation of hostilities on the eight of May 1945, it became clear that both Haren and Melsbroek would be used only by the military for some time. It wasn't until the fourteenth of March 1946 that Haren and Melsbroek were officially released for civil use. In the meantime there were civil operators using the airfields, but they were limited.

By 1947/1948 several foreign companies (like British European Airways) had already left Haren for Melsbroek. By 1949, all the civil flights were moved to Melsbroek. Since the former Sabena buildings were abandoned, part of the Belgian Air Foce moved its planes from the Evere side of the airfield to the Haren side. Sabena, however, didn't stop using the infrastructure completely. They continued to use the Haren hangars for servicing the DC-4's and Convair 240's. SABCA also continued to use some of the hangars, offices and land.

Since 1961, the Belgian Air Force has its Tactical Air Force headquarter in the third Air Terminal of Haren. The Avia-Palace is, as we speak, the officers' mess of the King Albert I quarter. Since 1967, NATO has its headquarters on the southern part of the former Evere airfield. From Haren, only the Terminal, the Avia-Palace and a Hangar VII are preserved, but a relocation from the NATO headquarters threatens to sacrifice these magnificent buildings to modern architecture.

In the meantime at Melsbroek, the civil operators of the airfield had their own problems. The communications as well as meteorological equipment had largely been destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Alongside the Civil Aviation Administration (CAA), the RLW/RAA was founded on the twentieth of November 1946. While the CAA was responsible for the regulations, the RLW/RAA was given the difficunt task of adapting the civil airport to meet the needs of modern air traffic, and operating it. For departing passengers at Melsbroek in those days, it was like going back to Haren in the Twenties. Again the departures 'lounge' was a wooden shack with a few tables and canvas chairs.

The first four-engined Sabena plane, the DC-4 OO-CBD, arrived at Melsbroek on February 18, 1946. The first Sabena flight to the United States was made by DC-4 OO-CBG on the fifth of July 1946.

As of mid 1946, the modernisation works of the Melsbroek air traffic control tower (built by the Germans) started. One of the most visible modifications was a glass tower on top of the existing structure. A new passenger building in Flemish framhouse style was erected between November 1946 and November 1948. The choice for this kind of building may seem somewhat surprising, but it had everything to do with the already existing buildings and the search for symmetry between the new and the old building. Especially when you look at airports like Berlin Tempelhof (construction started in 1936), the design of the new terminal in Melsbroek was hopelessly outdated.

By the late forties, it was clear that a new airport terminal was going to be built in Zaventem. One of the reasons was that Melsbroek Airport was anything but equipped for passenger transport by mid 1947. From 1947 on, more and more airlines abandoned Haren and opted for Melsbroek.

However the airport itself was outdated, the flying equipment of Sabena wasn't. The very first DC-6 to be delivered in Europe was destined for Sabena and it arrived in Melsbroek on the 28th of June 1947.

The next episode of the history of Brussels airport takes us to the period 1949-1958. The new Melsbroek airport terminal was officially opened on July 20, 1948 and went into use on the first of January 1949. By now, all the airlines flew out of Melsbroek and the passenger terminal and Avia-Palace were abandoned by the passengers. Whereas the civil aviation joined the military aviation in Haren after the First World War, the military aviation joined the civil aviation in Melsbroek on the 6th of June, 1950 when the 15th Wing of the Belgian Air Force gradually moved from Haren to Melsbroek. The 15th Wing is still present in Melsbroek although the politicians sometimes talk about moving it to a different location. Besides a new terminal building, new hangars (like Hangar 3 and 8), workshops and offices were built in this period.

Few people know that the refugee center 127'bis' near the road between Steenokkerzeel and Nossegem isn't the only refugee center at the airport. However it is more accessible than the original refugee center 127. This building was built in 1951 along with building 128. Building 127 was originally a quarantine unit for people of whom they feared to be carrier of infectuous diseases. Building 128 now houses the 'North' fire station.

Another first for Sabena and Belgian aviation: in August 1953 Sabena was the first to start an international helicopter service. Previously, Sabena had been able to build up experience with their helicopter mail services.

Between October 1954 and February 1955, the Melsbroek airport terminal underwent modifications in the arrival & departure halls. Since the airport was hard to reach by public transport, the authorities gave the green light to start the work on modern access routes. A bus service was introduced between the Sabena city offices and Melsbroek. On the 15th of May 1955, the first rail link between Brussels and Melsbroek was opened. The railway used the the same bedding that the Germans had laid during the occupation. Amazingly, the luggage from the passangers who boarded the train in Brussels city was loaded into special trolleys so that the transfer to the airplanes would go swiftly. In 1955, Sabena moved all its departments from Haren to Melsbroek.

On the 25th of July 1956, the first jetliner (Sud-Est SE.210 Caravelle F-BHHH)at Melsbroek arrived here. The upcoming World Exhibition of 1958 would change the airport of Melsbroek completely.

In 1954, the RLW/RVA (Regie der luchtwegen/Régie des Voies Aériennes) proposed to the Minister of Transport to build a new airport in Zaventem. The Minister immediately rejected the plans because he thought that the Melsbroek terminal would sufficient for the next couple of years/decades. In 1955, the Belgian government proposed to hold the first post-war World Exhibition in Brussels. The RLW/RVA realised that, despite the beliefs of the Minister of Transport, the Melsbroek terminal would be unable to cope with the number of passengers arriving in Brussels for the World Exhibition. In 1956, the new Minister of Transport Anseele ordered to build a new & more central airport terminal. The new terminal would be able to accomodate passengers for the next 40 years with only minor modifications, which is proof of its utilitarian and contemporary design.

Different plans were drawn up in which everything was assessed (hydrant refuelling system, runway combinations, airport lay-out, access roads, ...). The choice of the team of architects was also typically Belgian: Maxime Brunfaut (Brussels), Géo Bontinck (Flanders) and Joseph Moutschen (Wallony). The excavation works started in April 1956. In a little over a year, the terminal was constructed in true record time. The new building was handed over to the RLW/RVA on the 30th of May 1958. The official opening ceremony took place on the 5th of July 1958, at 11.00 o'clock, although the building was not yet completely finished (tower operations had to be run from Melsbroek during the first few months, no roof insulation was fitted, no heating in the offices, ...).

A new airport building was erected on Zaventem land. Due to these developments, the old Melsbroek airport buildings were more and more (and eventually exclusively) used by the Belgian Air Force. The new airport consisted of a terminal (with office space) and 2 fingers (North and South). Note that, due to budgetary reasons, boarding bridges were not constructed until 1970 and 1971.

One of the disadvantages of a new and modern building is the higher operating cost of it. New sources of income had to be found. Commercial activities were attracted to compensate the higher operating costs (tax free shops, hairdressers, showers, a nursery, exchange offices, meeting rooms and even a 12-bedroom hotel). Information was not only distributed via a conventional PA system or signs but also via television screens, a first in Europe.

Although many thought the 'Expo airport' was too grand, the one millionth passenger mark was already reached in 1958. Only then did the people came to realise that the old Melsbroek airport was hopelessly outdated.

The Sixties and Seventies were decades of growth for the airport. New airplanes arrived in the form of 2 newly delivered Caravelle jets. As planes grew bigger, the need for bigger maintenance hangars became more apparent. Construction works on Hangar 40 began on May 2, 1961 and the Hangar was taken into operation on December 10, 1964.

Zaventem terminal around 1963 (Source: Sabena Library and Resources)

Freight was handled in the basement of the 1958 airport terminal, but as more airlines flew jet aircraft into Brussels, the maximum capacity the terminal could handle, was reached very quickly. In May 1966 the new cargo buildings opened and DHL still uses them today.

On July 2, 1970 the first Jumbo landed at Brussels Airport when N737PA (Pan Am 747-121) touched down for the first time on Belgian soil. It came in from New York with a stopover in Amsterdam. Sabena had also ordered 2 Jumbo's and the first one (OO-SGA, a 747-129) arrived on November 26, 1970.

As from 1972 the RLW/RVA provided a special terminal for the growing sector of business aviation. On 25 June 1973 the Satellite was taken into use to give the airport at Zaventem more space to receive the growing number of wide-bodies. With this extension the capacity was increased from 6 to 8 million passengers a year. With the Jumbos operated by Braniff International and People Express international travel now also came within the reach of backpackers. At the end of 1979 Brucargo was opened. By 2006 the 25 square meters reserved for cargo at Haren in 1924 had grown into a cargo complex of over 100 hectares. Hangar 41, designed to accommodate Jumbos, was put into use in April 1983.

The Master Plan that the then Minister of Transport Herman De Croo presented on 22 January 1985 laid the foundation for the modernization of the airport. His project "Zaventem 2000" would lead to the creation of BATC (Brussels Airport Terminal Company), BIAC (Brussels International Airport Company) and Belgocontrol. On 22 June 1987 the foundation stone for the air traffic control centre CANAC (Computer Assisted National Air Traffic Control Centre) was laid.

BATC built a new terminal that was connected to the 1958 terminal and the 650-meter long pier B (for non-Schengen traffic). On 12 December 1994 the new complex was inaugurated by King Albert II. In December 1998 BIAC received the building permit for the construction of Pier A (for Schengen traffic) that was officially opened by Prince Philip on 16 May 2002.

Air traffic safety is guaranteed by the state-of-the-art control tower that was put into use by Belgocontrol in 2004. Brussels Airport's history goes back a long time. The events of September 11 and the demise of Sabena were a heavy setback to the airport, but today Brussels Airport is once again one of the fastest growing international airports. In the past few years the airport was proclaimed "Best Airport in Europe" by several organizations (including ACI/ IATA/AETRA).

On 19 October 2006 the airport adopted a new brand name and logo.

The present runway combination 07/25 and 02/20

When the plans for a new airport on Zaventem land were proposed in the mid fifties, the triangular layout of the runways was abandoned. It was then decided that there were to be 2 parallel runways in the direction of the prevailing winds (08L/26R and 08R/26L) and 2 runways that crossed each other in the centre of the airport (02/20 and 12/30).


You'll notice that this is a very brief outline of the history of the airport. For a more thorough history of the airport, I'd like to refer to the book 'Brussels Airport - The History of Haren, Melsbroek and Zaventem' by Frans Van Humbeek (Uitgeverij Het Streekboek). Most of the history on this page is coming out of the book. So, all the credits go to Frans Van Humbeek for the research. I would like to thank him for the use of the book on this page. I would also like to thank the people who own the pictures on this page.



Since November 2001, The airport has suffered a lot from the demise of our national carrier, Sabena.But slowly, the airport is beginning to recover although it might take some time to get the number of passengers back to their pre "9/11" numbers. Since September 11, a new pier opened at the airport (on ...) and the construction of a new tower is in progress. When passenger numbers rise, the airport will perfectly be able to cope with the increased amount of passengers.

Click on the map for a recent airport diagram. (pdf file)


The airport is located 12 kilometers (8 miles) from downtown Brussels. The total surface on which the airport is built is about 1,245 hectares (3,706 acres) of which 109 hectares (268 acres) is reserved for Brucargo. As you can see on the airport diagram, there are three runways 02/20, 07L/25R and 07R/25L.

Number of aircraft stands at maximum aircraft capacity Contact Remote
Passenger 54 55
Cargo (incl. express/courier)   31

Source: Brussels Airport


Some statistics about EBBR:

  2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999
Aircraft movements 254070 252249 256889 305532 325972 312892
Passengers 15612115 15194097 14410822 19670630 21646027 20040517
Cargo (tonnes) 664356 603136 536827 583727 687385 658883

Source: Brussels Airport