19 years ago, Sabena was declared bankrupt


That was nineteen years ago, on November 6, 2001. Sabena was declared bankrupt. Flight SN690, an Airbus A340-311 registered OO-SCZ coming from Cotonou and Abidjan, was the last Sabena aircraft to land at Brussels on 7 November, with 266 passengers and 11 crew. End of history, completely unimaginable at the time for an airline that appeared as one of the flagships of the national economy and a legendary company in the world. Ten thousand workers then found themselves on the floor.

Sabena (Société Anonyme Belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne) was a venerable old lady of 78 years. An internationally renowned company, the largest employer with 10,000 workers, 11 million passengers in 2000, 107 destinations in 48 countries. That’s the positive business card.

But Sabena was also known for its losses almost every year. The lack of vision of the state which regained control before the evil marriage with Swissair in 1995. A lack of capital, a hectic social life, a growing debt of two billion euros at the end. Especially after Swissair has undertaken to take the best, pumping subsidiaries and passengers, with a certain folly sometimes, as with the massive purchase of 34 Airbus aircraft, which put the balance sheet definitively in the red.

The restructuring plans did not change anything. The Swiss, highly indebted, were the first to plunge.

Bloodless, abandoned by the Belgian State which was tired to invest at loss, Sabena filed for bankruptcy on 6 November 2001.

An emotional moment on Wednesday 7 November 2001, as the very last Sabena flight, SN690 from Cotonou and Abidjan in Africa, is about to land on RWY 25L at Brussels Airport. © Ivan Coninx

The government then organised a social plan, a conversion cell with the Regions asked to “manage” what remains as the worst failure of all times.

A private company is reborn from the ashes, SN Brussels Airlines. Curatorship led by Christian Van Buggenhout still manages today the final remnants of the company: aircraft engines, hotels, real estate in Brussels and Congo (Hotel Memling in Kinshasa).

At the judicial level, on the Swiss side, all the managers were acquitted. On the Belgian side, under criminal law, the story is not over yet.

The name Sabena survives in the Sabena Flight Academy, the French maintenance company Sabena Technics and the Belgian one, Sabena Aerospace.

[Pictures] Exclusive visit of Sabena Boeing 747-300 OO-SGC, currently stored at Pinal Airpark, Arizona


  1. Dear Mr. Orban,

    Sabena filed for bankruptcy on November 7, 2001.
    There is a slight date error : Sabena was declared bankrupt by the Brussels Business Court ( = Tribunal de Commerce ) on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2001 at 18h00 loc.
    Indeed, the last flights landed at EBBR on Nov. 7.

  2. I tremendously flying SABENA from NY to Nice. It was a good airline. I never had the problems I had heard about. The same with Swiss Air. I want aware of the tension between the two. Thanks for that flashback.

  3. To be fair it has to be said that if Swissair had not taken over Sabena in 1995, it would have folded then and there. Never in its history did it manage to make a profit. And the service was sub optimal. Swissair only bought it, because they needed a foothold inside the EU to be able to operate freely, and Sabena was the only airline for sale. While they did not handle it perfectly, the Sabena purchase played a big role in Swissair’s own demise.
    I flew two times with Sabena during their last week of operations, and the airline was clearly falling apart. Outside of Belgium Sabena was the acronym for “Such A Bloody Experience Never again.”
    Fortunately, the new (SN) Brussels Airlines became a much better airline, so something good did come from it in the end. I really hope that it will survive the current crisis, unlike its predecessor, it has deserved it.

  4. Still remember that day vividly and very sadly though I was not even a member of the company, just a simple regular passenger..

  5. I loved flying SABENA non-stop from Boston to BRU from 1999-2001. Never had any problems, A330 aircraft was comfortable and service was very good. Good memories!


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