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
|First mail service
||Paris - Evere
||January 19, 1919
|First passenger service
||Paris - Evere
||February 12, 1919
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.
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.
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
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.
||Number of passengers
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
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.
||Date completed (estimated):
||July 1940 (extended to 1600m by May 1941)
||May 1941 (about 1600m)
||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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.