Several people are angry after being forced to spend the night in Brazzaville airport on January 21. Brussels Airlines apologises and ensures that the staff did their best given the “exceptional circumstances“.
Several passengers on the Brussels Airlines flight SN357 to Kinshasa (operated by Airbus A330-300 registered OO-SFV) claim to have had a “nightmare” on 21 January.
That evening, the plane of Brussels Airlines could not actually land in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo after an accident on the runway. A Service Air Boeing 737 cargo plane missed its landing. “The plane remained immobilised on the runway, preventing the landing of the other planes for a few hours. Therefore, international flights were rerouted, notably those of the Brussels Airlines and Turkish Airlines which diverted respectively to Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, and to Libreville in Gabon“, reported news site Media Congo.
The Brussels Airlines plane thus diverted to the airport of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, a neighbouring country, across the Congo River from Kinshasa. “We landed in Brazzaville, we stayed on the plane from 20:00 to 23:00, but everything was going well with the stewardesses and stewards,” said one passenger to Belgian TV channel RTL-TVI. The staff reassured the passengers who panicked a bit. But at 23:00, the runway of Kinshasa was still not clear. “Then we were informed that we had to disembark. They just said that they were going to change the crew. Those who had travelled with us would stay in Brazzaville and a new crew would continue the trip with us,” she said.
The 230 passengers were all inside Brazzaville airport around 23:30. They could not go out for lack of visa. They would have to stay there without their luggage, find food, drink and somewhere to sleep.
Another passenger regrets that the passengers did not receive vouchers or money from the airline for food. “The only place left open was a sort of VIP bar, where entrance costs $22 or $28, and there was nothing to eat, only drinks,” she said. The bottles of water from the bar are expensive. Very expensive. One passenger got four small bottles at 25 euros/piece.
“At one point, the situation became so catastrophic that we asked people who worked in the airport if they wanted to go out to buy us food and drink. We gave $20 in exchange for a chicken and bread, we shared with passengers who did not have enough money on them,” said that passenger.
“At around 2 am, people brought us five mattresses, we put the kids to two-three by mattress, they gave us water for free, we were able to drink, they were super nice,” she said.
Four hours later, “the shops at the airport opened and we rushed around 6:00 to buy food,” said another one. “Around 9:00, a team sent by Brussels Airlines brought us some breakfast platters with tea and coffee, but there was not enough for everyone.”
People from the Belgian embassy in Brazzaville arrived at the airport around 11:00. Right after that, a Brussels Airlines official finally came in. She made the crossing from Kinshasa.
At 13:00, a first group boarded one of the buses on the tarmac. Finally, the Airbus A330 left Brazzaville to Kinshasa as flight SN1357 around 14:00.
The return flight SN358 of 21 January was cancelled. OO-SFV returned from Kinshasa to Brussels on 22 January as SN1358.
RTL contacted the airline. Wencke Lemmes-Pireaux, spokesperson for Brussels Airlines, explained on the night of 21 January : “We diverted the flight to Brazzaville and there we waited, but unfortunately, after a few hours, we were told that we could not return to Kinshasa and that we had to wait for new information to be able to return to Kinshasa.
For Brussels Airlines, what matters is taking care of our passengers. But you must know that all this happened during the night. So we asked if we could let the passengers through, as we had already warned a hotel that could have accommodated them. But given the late hour, we could not get permission to cross the border. Unfortunately, our only possibility, if passengers cannot enter the country, is to let them sleep at the airport,” said Wencke Lemmes-Pireaux.
The spokeswoman confirmed that the crew who had travelled with the 230 passengers went to rest at the hotel, but explained the reason: “A crew must rest for security reasons before resuming a flight. This is the European law … otherwise, we could not even leave Brazzaville“.
Wencke Lemmes-Pireaux also said that four children, who were travelling alone that day, were taken care of by the company. “After a long discussion and after filling in some papers, we were able to pick up the kids.” They slept in the hotel with the crew.
Concerning a wheelchair passenger who had been sleeping in the airport hall, the spokeswoman told this: “A passenger, who was a medical case, was also entitled to go to the hotel for treatment. It was the medical service that took care of that gentleman, but again, was it immediately? Well, I do not know how to tell you, but again, these are exceptional circumstances, it probably took too much time“.
The spokeswoman wanted to clarify certain points. “You should know that you do not normally fly in Brazzaville, of course, we contacted the local agency to say: help us to give drinks, catering and beds to our passengers. But obviously, again, it was during the night and Brazzaville Airport does not always have the same means as the other airports. And so, they did their best. They gave water and breakfast, but unfortunately it took time,” she admits, noting that it was under their request that mattresses and water were brought to passengers around 02:00 in the morning.
“We were dependent on third parties, but obviously we gave all the care we could give, but again, it was in an airport where there were not many things, especially not at midnight,” insists the spokesperson.
“You have to imagine that it was an exceptional situation in the middle of the night in an airport that we are not used to operating. It’s a shame that we were not able to take care of the passengers as we usually do, we were dependent on several parts and these parts also did the maximum under somewhat exceptional circumstances. It goes without saying that it’s not comfortable sleeping in an airport, but unfortunately we had no other possibilities,” she admits.
The spokeswoman said the airline was slow to communicate with the passengers because the Kinshasa-based officer could not cross the river overnight. It was only possible the next day at 10:30. “Our Brussels Airlines Country Manager based in Kinshasa went by boat to Brazzaville, accompanied by Belgian authorities, people from the Belgian embassy, to explain the situation to the passengers. But, obviously, she could not do that during the night because one can not cross the river“, she declares.
“As soon as we were informed that the Kinshasa airport was open, we prepared the plane and we went to Kinshasa,” said the spokeswoman.
“It took a little more time, but everything we could influence, we did it to the maximum, but we realise that the passengers did not have a good experience. We apologise deeply for the inconvenience,” adds Wencke Lemmes-Pireaux.
Sources: RTL-TVI and own research