the history of Sabena


SABENA is short for Société autonyme belge d'exploitation de la navigation aérienne, or Belgian company for exploiting aerial navigation. It began operations on May 23, 1923 as the Belgian national carrier. It was created by the Belgian government after its predecessor, SNÉTA (Syndicat national pour l'étude des transports aériens), which was formed in 1919 as a sort of testbed to investigate commercial aviation in Belgium, ceased operations. SABENA Airlines' first paying flight was from Rotterdam to Strasbourg via Brussels on April 1, 1924 (an example of the hub-and-spoke system.) Regular flights to Amsterdam and Basle via Strasbourg were initiated by 1923 with further routes to London, Bremen and Copenhagen by 1924.

Belgian Congo

When SABENA was created, it was partly funded by Belgians in the Belgian Congo colony who had lost their air service - an experimental passenger and cargo company (L.A.R.A.) between Kinshasa, Lisala and Stanleyville - a year earlier, and expected the new Belgian national airline to fill this gap. So from 1925 SABENA pioneered a route to Africa and to Belgium's interests in the Belgian Congo. Throughout its history, SABENA has had a long tradition with Africa flights. In fact, for a long time, these were the only profitable flights.

SABENA chose to use landplanes for its Congo operations and a program of aerodrome construction in the Congo began. This was finished in 1926 and SABENA immediately began flights within the Congo, the main route being Boma-Léopoldville-Élisabethville, a 2,288 km (1,422 mi) route over dense jungle. First, flights were with De Havilland d.h. 50 aircraft, although these were quickly replaced with the larger Handley-Page W8f airliners, which had three engines and ten seats.

By 1931 SABENA's fleet, including the aircraft used on the Congo network, totalled 43 aircraft. Its mainstay type was the Fokker 7B with a lesser number of the smaller Fokker 7A and 14 Handley-Page types. It also used the British Westland Wessex (1930) aircraft.

SABENA flew aircraft out to Tropical Africa, its Congo colony, occasionally but mostly these aircraft were shipped out. There was no direct flight yet between Belgium and its colony. As the 1930s progressed, SABENA cooperated with Air France and Deutsche Lufthansa (who also had interests in routes over Africa and the Congo) on over-flight rights.

SABENA's first long-haul flight to the Congo occurred February 23, 1935 and took five and a half days. It was flown by a SABENA Fokker F7b on a direct service. The following year, SABENA purchased the Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 73. At a speed of 300 km/h (200 mph), it reduced this route to only four days, and the SABENA service ran on alternate weeks with Air Afrique.

Expansion in Europe
In Europe, SABENA opened services to Copenhagen and Malmö in 1931. A route to Berlin was initiated in 1932. The mainstay pre-war airliner that SABENA used in Europe was the successful Junkers Ju-52/3m airliner. The airline's pre-war routes covered almost 6,000 km within Europe alone. While the Brussels Haren airport was Sabena's main base, the company also operated lines from other Belgian airports, and even had a domestic network that was mainly used by businessmen who wanted to be in their coastal villas for the weekend.

In 1938, the airline purchased the new S.M. 83, a development of the S.M. 73 with a speed of 435 km/h (270 mph), although it flew services at a cruising speed of about 400 km/h (250 mph.)


At the dawn of World War Two in Europe in 1939, SABENA's fleet totalled 18 aircraft. Its mainstay fleet type was the Savoia-Marchetti SM-73 airliner (it had 11 of the type) and the Junkers Ju-52/3m airliner (it had 5.) SABENA also had two Douglas DC-2s.

During World War Two, the airline managed to maintain its Belgian Congo routes, but all European services were stopped.


After the Second World War in 1946, SABENA's fleet consisted of Douglas DC-3s (There were tens of thousands of surplus C-47 Dakotas available to help airlines restart operations after the war.) The airline now flew under the name SABENA - Belgian World Airlines.

SABENA started its first transatlantic route to New York on June 4, 1947, initially using Douglas DC-4s which were quickly replaced by Douglas DC-6Bs. These 'fours' and 'six-Bs' also restarted the airline's historic route to the Belgian Congo.

Convair 240s were introduced in 1949 to replace the DC-3 twins, which had flown all European services.

As of 1956, Convair 440 'Metropolitan' twins started to replace the Convair 240 twins and were used successfully well into the 1960s across European regional destinations.

In 1957, the long-haul Douglas DC-7C, the 'Seven Seas', was introduced for long-haul routes but this plane would be supplanted after only three years by the jet age.


1960 saw the introduction of the new Boeing 707-320 intercontinental jet for long-haul trans-Atlantic flights to New York. SABENA was mainland Europe's first airline to operate a jet across the Atlantic (BOAC - now British Airways - had been flying transatlantic services before 1960, using the De Havilland Comet 4 jet.)

Sud-Est SE-210 Caravelle 6 jetliners were introduced on all medium-haul routes in Europe from February 1961 and were flown on most European routes, alongside the Convair 440s, until the early 1970s.

1961 also saw a major upheaval for SABENA in the Congo colony. Rioting occurred frequently in the months leading up to and after the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These riots against the old colonizers, caused thousands of Belgians to flee the country. The Belgian government commandeered SABENA's entire long haul fleet to get the refugees back to Europe. The independence of Congo also meant the end of the impressive regional network of routes and airports that the airline had built up there since 1924. When the new Republic began its own airline, Air Congo, in June 1961, SABENA held 30 percent of that airline's shares.

Douglas 'Super DC-6B' aircraft were still in use with SABENA in the mid 1960s despite the airline introducing a fleet of modern Boeing 707 jets. These aircraft were no longer used on SABENA's main schedules though; the Boeing 707s and Caravelles were the mainstay types during this decade.

Boeing 727-100s were introduced important European routes from 1967 and the jet was introduced in a colour scheme of its own; the fin markings incorporated bare-metal rudder and white engine colours. The only other aircraft to have its own special markings was the Douglas DC-10.

Fokker F-27 'Friendships' were also introduced at this time and they were used from regional Belgian airports to European destinations such as Heathrow.

1971 saw Boeing 747-100s introduced on the transatlantic routes flying alongside the Boeing 707-320Cs. SABENA, like many other trans-Atlantic airlines was happy with the Boeing 707s but for commercial reasons it had to buy the new jumbo-jets for its prestige services like New York City and as of the mid-seventies, Chicago. SABENA purchased only two first generation jumbo-jets and continued to fly the 707 into the late 1970s.

As of 1973, the Boeing 727s on the European network were replaced by Boeing 737-200. The Douglas DC-10-30 was taken into service in 1974. In total, SABENA purchased four of these convertible wide-body jets.

In 1984 Airbus A310s were introduced on routes that had high passenger-density. This aircraft type also introduced a modernisation of the 1973 SABENA livery, in which a lighter blue was used and the titles on the fuselage were in a more modern style.


A new name, SABENA World Airlines, and livery were introduced for the 1990s. The new colours had an overall white colour and the white circle tail logo in blue on the fin. A large 'sabena' title covered the fuselage in very light blue and at times was barely visible although the title was also painted on the fuselage in small clear letters. The 1990s saw further fleet type renewal; the DC-10-30s were replaced with MD-11 jets.

Ever since the European Union had decided that by the mid-nineties the European skies were to be considered a common market, meaning that airlines of a European member state would no longer be bound to their own country, it became apparent that SABENA had little chances to survive on its own in this very competitive market. The Belgian government, the main shareholder of the company, began searching for a fit partner.

In 1993, Air France purchased a large minority stake in SABENA, which it sold soon after. In 1995, Swissair purchased a 49 percent stake in SABENA, a move that would bring the airline down in 2001.

In 1994, Paul Rusesabagina, a manager for Sabena-owned hotels in the former Belgian colony of Rwanda, sheltered over 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus at the Hôtel des Mille Collines of Kigali, saving them from being slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia during the Rwandan genocide (this is depicted in the motion picture Hotel Rwanda).


The Boeing 747-100s that had entered service in the 1970s were replaced with the new Airbus A340 long-haul jet. By the late 1990s, the airline colours were changed again.

1999 saw the new colours on the latest Airbus equipment to be used by SABENA, the Airbus A321. One of the latest fleet types that SABENA has introduced is the Airbus A319 which saw service in 2000. These new planes were part of a record-order of 36 Airbusses, imposed on SABENA by SWISSAIR.

After an airline recession and the effects on the airline industry of September 11, 2001, all airlines that flew across the Atlantic suffered badly. Interesting to note, however, was the unwillingness of the board to enter into talks with Dutch flag carrier KLM because of the language difference between KLM and the bosses at SABENA, which until the end remained one of the last bastions of French domination in Belgium.

Swissair had pledged itself to invest millions into SABENA, but failed to do this, partly because the airline had financial problems itself, and partly because of new management. Sabena operated its final flight on November 7, 2001. The company filed for legal protection against its creditors on October 3, and went into liquidation on November 6, 2001.

A group of investors managed to take over DAT, one of SABENA's subsidiaries, and transformed it into SN Brussels Airlines. The Belgian parliament started a committee to investigate the reasons behind the bankruptcy and the involvement of the Swiss. At the same time, the company's administrator investigated possible legal steps against Swissair, and its successor Swiss International Airlines, the new name of Swissair's subsidiary Crossair.