Sabena staff walk out ahead of bankruptcy decision

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The Independent Online

Sabena staff started walking off the job hours before the board of the national carrier was to decide whether to file for bankruptcy and finalize the demise of one of Europe's oldest airlines.

Personnel in catering, cleaning, luggage and check–in started the wildcat actions as rumors swirled that the company was heading toward its end, with little hope that more than a fraction of the 12,000–strong staff would be taken over by the airline's potential successor.

It remained unclear how many flights of Sabena would still go out for the rest of Tuesday, but the BIAC airport authority called on Sabena travelers to stay away from Zaventem international airport.

"It is no use to try to leave with a Sabena ticket now. It's not going to work anyhow," said BIAC spokesman Jan Van der Cruysse. Sabena maintained however most flight were still planning to leave.

The Sabena board issued a news blackout until late Tuesday, another indication the company was conducting vital meetings.

"The last flights of Sabena," headlined the daily La Libre Belgique.

The government has been busy plotting the future of a viable Belgian–based carrier beyond the end of Sabena and has sent extra police to Zaventem international airport to contain any labor disturbances.

The unions met with the government Tuesday, pleading for another cash injection to at least have a social safety net in place in case the company is declared insolvent and staff is fired.

Finance Minister Didier Reynders had to leave a meeting of his European Union colleagues to attend the meeting.

Sabena was created in 1923, and through the years, the state–owned airline has become one of Belgium's trademark companies.

However, as soon as liberalization hit the industry, Sabena was seen as a commercial dinosaur, unable to adapt to the harsher realities of slimmed–down staffing and the profit principle.

Sabena tried an alliance with Swissair, but when the Swiss juggernaut collapsed last month, it also dragged Sabena down.

Sabena, in which the government still holds a 50.5 percent majority stake, has an outstanding debt of some dlrs 2 billion.

Bankruptcy could open the way for new investors to come in and build a slimmed–down version of the airline, centered primarily on European flights. The plan is to transfer part of Sabena's assets to Delta Air Transport, one of Sabena's subsidiaries which would survive bankruptcy. However, any revamped airline that emerges will need new investors – now hard to find after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Virgin Express said Tuesday it had been in talks with Sabena for months, yet it was unhappy with the plans for the creation of a successor airline. "The plan would endanger the future of our personnel," said Virgin Express in a statement, but added that "talks are continuing."

On Oct. 5, a Belgian court granted Sabena bankruptcy protection, giving management and the government until Nov. 8 to come up with a rescue plan.

The filing followed the failure of co–owner Swissair, hit by its own cash crunch, to come through with a promised injection of dlrs 123 million in fresh capital.

Sabena was forced to seek the bankruptcy protection after reporting a loss of dlrs 122 million in the first half of 2001 – dlrs 49.2 million more than the year before.

Over the past 25 years, the airline has lost more than dlrs 1.5 billion.