Brussels Airlines CEO Bernard Gustin spoke with Travel Weekly's Kate Rice about the airline's decision to serve Ebola-stricken Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and its role in the Africa Is Not Ebola website and Instagram campaign, an effort to combat lingering fears and misperceptions about the outbreak.
Q: Why did you stay when all other carriers, except for Royal Air Maroc, pulled out?
A: We have long-haul flights to 21 destinations, and 19 of them are in Africa. It has been a tradition starting with Sabena [whose routes Brussels took over in 2001] not to let these countries down. When the Ebola crisis broke out, we were in the usual process of a crisis in Africa: stay as long as possible, and if you have to stop, to restart as quickly as possible.
Q: But you never stopped. Why?
A: It is a completely different world if you're the last one. Once we stopped, the countries would be completely isolated, so that burden was on our shoulders.
Q: What steps did you take?
A: We took all the necessary sanitary and risk management measures. Doctors Without Borders met with our staff and with our unions to educate them. Our people knew that the risks were limited, if not nonexistent, and if they were to stop operations, they were putting the real heroes, Doctors Without Borders, in trouble. We didn't oblige anybody to do these flights. We gave crews an opt-out option. Out of 400, 500 people, we had 20 or 30 who said, "I can't do it."
Q: Under what circumstances would you have pulled out?
A: If somebody would have come onboard with symptoms of the sickness and after they arrived in Brussels, tests showed they had Ebola, I think then we would have had to stop because then it would mean that protections at the [departing] airport were not working. Of 77,000 passengers we flew, about 30 were refused in the [departing] airport. We had 10 crises onboard where people had temperatures or threw up. None had Ebola.
Q: But Thomas Duncan, who died of Ebola in Texas, did fly your airline.
A: When he left Monrovia, he did not have a temperature. He was not contagious. He was on our flight Sept. 19. He started to show symptoms Sept. 25. We did not put any staff or passengers at risk.
Q: What is Ebola's current impact on Africa?
A: Ebola is a huge problem on the way to being solved. The situation is not over in these countries, but all neighboring countries have been declared free from Ebola. The first vaccinations are delivering positive results. We are on the path for a solution. But I was struck at how the whole continent is completely isolated; people stopped going there. Ebola was three countries. There were 51 countries not hit by Ebola. It's as if people were to say, "Don't go to Los Angeles because there was Ebola in Baltimore and Richmond, Va." And Africa isn't just safaris and nice beaches. There are major investments in infrastructure. Africa is growing fast. There is no sub-Saharan country growing slower than 7% [GDP]. We are not talking about helping countries in despair. We are talking growing economies.
Q: How did Africa Is Not Ebola come into existence?
A: It popped up at a dinner meeting. It is not a commercial campaign. We see it as our social responsibility.