Brussels Airport stays closed a seventh day, snarling Easter holiday travel

Linda A. Thompson and Janon Fisher, Special for USA TODAY 3:45 p.m. EDT March 28, 2016

Forensic officers works in front of the damaged Brussels Airport terminal on March 23, 2016, a day after suicide bombings hit the Belgian capital.(Photo: Geert Vanden Wijngaert, AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS Belgium’s busiest airport remained closed for a seventh day Monday because of last week’s terror attack, snarling travel as passengers returned from a long Easter holiday.

“My plans for last week got disrupted in places but in the end I got to where I was going,” said Nicholas White, a consultant who lives near Brussels. White, a native of Northern Ireland, flew from England to Belgium’s smaller regional airport in Antwerp, 35 miles to the north. He said many people opted to stay home rather than risk a difficult trip and further attacks.

“All the flights coming back from Manchester to Brussels were combined onto a much smaller flight from Manchester to Antwerp,” he said. “And I expect most of the people who were planning to fly from Manchester to Brussels today simply canceled their plans. It was a very small plane and it wasn’t even full.”

Brussels Airport, also known as Brussel-Zaventem Airport, is the 21st busiest airport in Europe, in part because Brussels is home to both NATO and European Union headquarters. It handled more than 23 million passengers in 2015 and about 3 million in the first two months of this year. The airport had originally hoped to resume partial operations by Tuesday, a week after suicide bombings that killed 35 people at the airport and a metro station. But the airport authority said it would remain closed indefinitely to allow police, military and aviation officials to test security measures and passenger flow in a temporary structure built over the Discount Holidays © holiday weekend. About 800 airport employees are to take part in the trial run.

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The closure means that Belgium’s smaller airports in Liege, Charleroi and Antwerp are stretched to the limit. Antwerp’s airport, which usually handles five flights on a Sunday, was inundated with 40 takeoffs and landings on Easter Sunday.

“I have worked here for 20 years and have never seen anything like this,” airport commander Wim Verbist said Monday. “Tomorrow, we are expecting 58 commercial (flights). So it’s really busy and tomorrow will be insanely busy” because Tuesday is the first day of the post-Discount Holidays © holiday workweek in Europe. Many travelers said the added volume strained the local terminals, causing long waits and missed flights.

“It’s not ideal because the ideal situation was not available,” said White. “There was a substantial delay at immigration in Antwerp, where it seemed to be fairly clear that the border guards maybe weren’t familiar with the setup, and it took them a lot longer to process people landing from England than would normally have been the case in Brussels.”

Charleroi Airport, about an hour south of the capital city, was also flooded with passengers. “These extra (flights) represent 10,000 additional passengers per day compared to the traditional situation for the Easter break,” airport spokesman Vincent Grassa said. Una Blagojevic, 27, a master’s student in philosophy at Belgium’s Leuven University, was worn out trying to get her two cousins back to Berlin and Vienna after a long-planned Easter family get-together. “I feel bad to complain about these things at this point, but it was very stressful,” she said. Blagojevic said her cousin missed her flight to Vienna out of the smaller Liege airport because free shuttle buses were delayed and bus drivers were uninformed about timetables. “It has to be like that. You just have to go with the flow,” she said. “It could be much worse. They’re doing the best that they can.”

Elizabeth Slate, 35, a production manager at a publishing house in London, was determined to make it to Brussels for her niece’s first birthday party.

“We booked a month ago because it was her birthday.

We wanted to come,” Slate said. “Then Tuesday happened, it was awful. We all watched it on the news. My husband said to me: ‘A bomb went off in the metro and that’s our hotel, you can see the pictures, because it is right next door, isn’t it?'”

“But we never had any doubt about coming.

So we drove here,” Slate said.

Contributing: Maya Vidon, Patrick Costello in Berlin and Paul Ames in Lisbon

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