Sabena was the former national airline of Belgium, mainly operating from Brussels National Airport, now replaced by SN Brussels Airlines. The airline operated from 1923 to 2001.

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Sabena Airbus A340-311 OO-SCY



SABENA - short for Société anonyme belge d'exploitation de la navigation aérienne - began on May 23, 1923 as the Belgian national carrier. It took over from Belgium's previous airline, SNÉTA (Syndicat national pour l'étude des transports aériens) which was formed in 1919 as a national airline.

SABENA AIR LINES' first paying flight was on April 1, 1924 on a flight from Rotterdam to Strasbourg stopping at Brussels. Regular flights to Amsterdam and Basle via Strasbourg were started by 1923 with further routes to London, Bremen and Copenhagen by 1924.

When SABENA was formed, it was partly funded by Belgians in the Congo colony who had only a year before lost their air service - an experimental passenger and cargo company (L.A.R.A.) between Kinshasha, Lisala and Stanleyville - 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.

SABENA chose to use landplanes for the Congo operation and a program of aerodrome building in the Congo began. These were finished in 1926 and SABENA immediately began flights within the Congo in line with its mandate, the main route being Boma-Léopoldville-Élisabethville - a 2288 km (1422 mi) route over dense jungle. First flights were with De Havilland d.h. 50 aircraft although these were 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 aircraft.

SABENA flew aircraft out to Tropical Africa - its Congo colony - occasionally but mostly these aircraft were shipped out. The flight from Belgium to the Congo had, in the past taken 51 days...A mammoth flight. But as the 1930s progressed SABENA cooperated with Air France and Deutsche Luft Hansa on over-flight rights (who also had interests in routes over Africa and the Congo) and began its first regular scheduled service from Brussels to Léopoldville in the Congo.

Thus, 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 latest airliner, 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 service ran alternative weeks in cooperation with Air Afrique who flew the every other week.

In Europe SABENA opened services to Copenhagen and Malmo in 1931. A route to Berlin began 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 6000 km within Europe alone.

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 about 400 km/h (250 mph).


By the outbreak of war 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 C-47 Dakotas available to help airlines restart operations after the war). The airline now flew under the name SABENA - Belgian World Airlines.

June 4, 1947 saw SABENA start a new route across the Atlantic to New York 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 purchased and introduced in 1950 to replace the DC-3 twins, which had flown all European services.

Convair 440 'Metropolitan' twins replaced the earlier 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 would be supplanted after only three years by the jet age.


1960 saw big changes for SABENA when the state of Zaire was founded ending the long-held route from Belgium to the Congo. 1960 also saw the introduction of the new Boeing B707-320 intercontinental jet for its 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 trans-Atlantic Comet 4 jet services before 1960).

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. When the old Belgian Congo became the Republic of Congo Belgians fled, transported by SABENA. This was the end of the impressive regional network of routes and airports in Congo that the airline had built up 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 B707 jets. These aircraft were no longer used on SABENA's main schedules though - the Boeing B707s and Caravelles were the mainstay types during this decade.

Boeing B727-100s 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 B747-100s introduced on the transatlantic routes flying alongside the Boeing B707-320Cs. SABENA, like many other trans-Atlantic airlines was happy with the Boeing B707s but for commercial reasons it had to buy the new jumbo-jets for its prestige services like New York City. SABENA purchased only two and continued to fly the B707 into the late 1970s.

1973 saw Boeing B737-200s replacing the Boeing B727s on the European services. Douglas DC10-30CFs were introduced from 1974 and 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 modern style.


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Paul Rusesabagina receiving the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity from Bob Dole in 2000

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.

1993 saw Air France purchase 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).


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Last Sabena flight arriving at Brussels Airport

The Boeing 747-200s that had seen service since 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.

After an airline recession and the effects on the airline industry of the attacks on America on September 11, 2001 all airlines that flew across the Atlantic suffered badly.

Further to this SABENA was owed 84 million by the Swiss airline Swissair. After Swissair stopped operations on October 2, 2001 and refused to repay the money SABENA was forced to stop flying. The company filed for legal protection against its creditors on October 3.

This gave SABENA about three weeks to get further financial backing. With most of the main airlines in Europe fighting for passengers in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and on civil aviation SABENA failed to gain the required backing and went into liquidation on November 6, 2001.

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