Africa Is Not Ebola | An Interview With Brussels Airlines’ Philippe Saeys-Desmedt -Vice President of Sales, Africa

Although the Ebola virus has now been officially cleared from the three countries it ravaged over the past year-and-a-half (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), visitors have been cautious in making travel plans to the continent of Africa for fear of coming in contact with the disease. Brussels Airlines, who has championed Africa for nearly its entire existence for its beauty, rarity and tourism potential, stepped-in during the throws of the problem to support the countries severely affected, as well as the visitors who travel often to and from the region.

Brussels Airlines mounted an effort that it continues to support, the “Africa Is Not Ebola” campaign (#AfricaIsNotEbola), to combat the fear surrounding travel to the continent. The campaign was created to help educate potential travelers about the virus and, simultaneously, show them that Africa, as a whole, is not synonymous with the disease.

Serving 19 destinations in Africa, Brussels Airlines knows Africa better than most any other carrier in Europe, Asia or the Americas. I spoke with their VP of Sales for the region, Mr. Philippe Saeys-Desmedt, about the airline’s commitment to Africa, the courage it took not to pull out during the outbreak and the future of the continent in terms of tourism.

IC: When did your love affair with Africa begin?

PS: I lived in the bush as a kid. My love affair began at the beginning of my life, really. I’ve lived in many countries throughout Africa.

IC: When did the airline’s relationship with Africa begin?

PS: It began in 1923. The aircrafts at the time couldn’t make long-haul flights so it had to stop in many of the countries on its way to a destination. The airline always had a good relationship with those countries.

IC: Why was it important for the airline to offer service to Africa from the beginning?

PS: Belgium has always had a large presence in Africa and it was always a priority to serve its colonies, historically.

IC: Africa is a changing, growing continent and, with that, can sometimes come instability. Why has the airline remained dedicated to serving the continent throughout often unstable circumstances?

PS: There is a real attachment for us there. In 2012 we served 8 destinations in Africa. The success was so quick, our board decided to invest in more long-haul routes. Africa is our second home and our employees, both in Europe and Africa, feel that relationship strongly. We now have 17 destinations in Africa, 19 including two in Morocco. We’ve always felt at ease in Africa.

IC: During the recent Ebola outbreak, Brussels Airlines was one of the first airlines to deliver medical supplies and medical staff to the affected areas, why didn’t you pull out and avoid the risk?

PS: Panic happens when you don’t think. There was an epidemic, we had two options – stay or leave. What happens when you leave? Aid will not arrive, three countries would have been left completely alone. If you stop flying, people will continue to travel, but in an unregulated way. The danger of spreading the disease is more. We decided to think about it in a scientific way with the help of the American CDC and organizations in Europe. We took risk assessments and implemented very strict guidelines as to the criteria that had to be met for sanitation and the criteria of who could and couldn’t travel with us.

During the epidemic, we transported 100,000 people without a single case on board.

IC: When you were facing harsh criticism from passengers and the media, why did you soldier through and continue to offer service to west Africa?

PS: Doctors without borders, the CDC – they’re not crazy. They gave us advice and we followed it. We had meetings and took strong measures. We followed the guidelines, sometimes doing sanitation checks twice. We had thermometers, we refused people if they had elevated temperatures. 18 months with no cases on-board proved us right. Africa is our second home, you don’t just leave when something goes wrong.

IC: How is the airline’s relationship with Africa changing now and in the future?

PS: Every country in Africa where Brussels Airlines is present, has a country manager. They’re job is to have contact with the government – the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Tourism. We want to work with the governments to promote tourism, to help promote the infrastructure needed to sustain it. We are focusing on Sierra Leone and Liberia.

We are also focusing on East Africa, increasing frequencies to Rwanda and Uganda. Flying twice or three times per week is not acceptable anymore, we want to make these long-hauls daily.

IC: Which destination in Africa, that you serve, has a strong potential for tourism?

PS: Cameroon is a beautiful country. It is such a magical place and has so much to offer.