Last Sabena Flight Arrives Home as Court Declares Airline Bankrupt

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A commercial court declared Sabena bankrupt on Wednesday, as the airline's last scheduled flight flew home to mark the end of the Belgian carrier's 78-year history.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, meantime, said a deal had been reached between Belgium's three regional governments and 12 private investors to invest some $180 million in a new regional airline that would be formed from Sabena's subsidiary Delta Air Transport.

The court ruling means Sabena is insolvent and will come under the control of eight court administrators who are expected to sell off parts of the airline to raise money for awaiting creditors.

The carrier had already grounded most of its planes Tuesday to prepare for the decision to shut down operations, causing chaos for passengers and the company's 12,000 employees.

As disgruntled Sabena workers protested at Brussels International airport, other carriers rerouted or canceled flights, virtually shutting down the airport.

Belgian media reported that the banks Fortis and KBC and the energy company Electrabel were involved in backing the new carrier announced by Verhofstadt.

The prime minister said the goal was for the new airline to concentrate on European and African routes. Talks to reach a final agreement on how the new airline would operate were still continuing, but Privatization Minister Rik Daems said the new airline could provide jobs for 6,000-7,000 Sabena employees.

Thousands of Sabena staff ignored a request to stay home and occupied the main terminal at Brussels airport where a few bemused passengers were greeted by electronic notice boards showing all departures canceled.

"It's awful," said Fabienne De Clerck, a flight attendant with 18 years experience at Sabena. "There were always problems, but they were good years. Now we don't know what's going to happen to us."

Riot police kept protesters from moving on to the tarmac allowing a handful of planes to land Wednesday morning. Police backed by water cannon also pushed back angry Sabena workers who headed downtown to march on Verhofstadt's residence.

Brussels-based Virgin Express, which said it was interested in investing in a new regional carrier, said Tuesday it was unhappy with the current 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."

Symbolically Sabena's last flight came from Africa, where the carrier pioneered commercial air travel in the 1930s with flights to what was then Belgium's colony, Congo. Flight SN690 returned to Brussels from Cotonou, Benin, Wednesday morning with 266 passengers.

"It's a very sad day for Belgium," said Filip Van Rossem, of the Belgium Cockpit Association, which represents pilots. "It could all have been avoided if there was a different kind of management."