In Flanders’ Cities 7: Zaventem is where they park the planes

Posted June 2nd, 2015

Brussels Airport (BRU), technically in Zaventem, [http://www.brusselsairport.be/en/] is busy enough. Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is a convenient crossroads from pretty much any point to any other point in any of the six inhabited Continents and enjoys a largely captive audience.

BRU exemplifies the imperialist and bourgeois core of traditional Belgium and the insistent grab of capitalist culture. The route from security clearance to gates forces one to walk through Duty Free shops of every imaginable kind. There is no way to avoid the miasma of perfume and cosmetics, racks of clothing and displays of accessories, and the siren call of toys and candy that ensnarls the child you are trying to move efficiently from one point to another.

BRU is also one of the walkiest airports I have ever been in. Anywhere. I’m reasonably sure the nearest gates are a full kilometer from security and more remote gates are just a little shy of Siberia.

When en route from BRU to Vilnius (VNO), we arrived in ample time prior to departure and planned to find breakfast there. It was a good plan. The airport had a Panos, a bread/pastries/sandwich snackery whose motto is Le gout de chez nous (“The taste of home”). Several of them in fact. What they didn’t have were any employees that could move the endless line of breakfast-seekers through the cash register at a speed greater than that with which the glaciers were created. So I held my pastry and yogurt and waited. And waited. And waited. And somewhere upwards of twenty-five minutes later I arrived at the register. I also needed coffee but their machine looked iffy and the young women running it seemed unable to handle taking orders and making change, so I purchased our breakfast and headed over to the Starbucks for coffee. Jeepers but Starbucks’ coffee is hot!

The return trip, VNO to BRU, wasn’t a hassle. Some delay boarding at VNO. An interminable trek to get to the baggage claim in BRU.

The next morning, having spent the night literally across the street at the Sheraton, we checked in, checked bags, made our way through security and hiked through the poisonous air of the unavoidable Duty Free Shops to the departure gates. Boarding was efficient; all passengers on USAirways/American Airlines flight 751 appeared to be seated by 10:15 am for a 10:45 departure.

Then things went south. Or more precisely, nowhere at all.

At 10:45 we were informed that some problem or other would delay departure. About forty-five minutes later we were given bottles of water. Half an hour after that, passengers who wanted to stretch their legs were offered the opportunity to do so—as long as they didn’t wander far from gate 7. Twenty minutes later we were all instructed to take our carry-ons, deplane, and hang out at the gate.

the view at BRU gate 7

the view at BRU gate 7

And hang out we did. For another four hours. And I began to make a list of problems that would have to be resolved:

  • My Dear One was about to run out of meds.
  • We had scheduled doctors’ appointments for the next day.
  • We were out of clean shirts.
  • We were out of clean underwear.

As soon as a number of passengers had succumbed to hunger and bought lunch, the airline staff announced that we would be receiving vouchers that could be used to purchase lunch. Eight euros per person doesn’t go far but it covered the paninis, although not the bottles of water.

juicing the electronics

juicing the electronics

Every so often we would hear announcements that the problem had not yet been solved. Meanwhile it was obvious that personal electronics were starting to run out of juice and there was only one outlet in the gate area. One at a time, passengers plugged into it. Finally it was my turn. I worked for a while. We all waited. Then a young fella across the way unfolded a travel-size power strip—just four outlets. I immediately plugged his strip into my adapter, plugged the adapter into the wall and suddenly four additional devices were connected. More devices were charged using the USB ports on my computer.

Teamwork. That is what it was. Teamwork, patience, good manners and good humor.

Around 4:00 we were given the news we should have been given a couple hours earlier. We would be distributed to hotels, given vouchers for dinner, and rescheduled on flights the next day.

The next round of problems is just too irritating to think about. In short, however, we learned about the airport doctor and ordering necessary meds from the airport pharmacy, returned to the Sheraton and had another night of so-so comfort. Repacking included cramming a large bottle bought at the Duty Free into a suitcase already overloaded because you can’t bring Duty Free back into secure areas of an airport. We returned to gate 7, breakfast voucher in hand, in time for flight 751 at 10:45 am from BRU to PHI.

We also learned that the voucher was no good at the establishment that offered fresh squeezed orange juice. All we really wanted, at that point, was a glass of orange juice so we paid 10 euros for the juice and then squandered our 16 euros at Starbucks on cinnamon buns and yogurt.

Once on the plane we found ourselves jammed together like the proverbial sardines. We rued the loss of the unoccupied seats that filled the fuselage the day before and made silent apologies to the scheduled passengers for making their flight unpleasantly full. We settled in. Eight tiring hours later we deplaned at PHI, dropped a new friend off at her home in Media before heading down route one to Maryland.

Lessons learned?

  • BRU is not a pleasant airport and whatever you need to do will take much more time than you anticipate it should.
  • Add a short power strip to the electronics gear packed in the carry-on luggage. You never know when you will need it.
  • Bring an extra twenty-four hour supply of whatever is indispensable just in case.
  • Don’t schedule important appointments on the day after you are due home.
  • Improve your [re]packing techniques.
  • Be prepared to elbow your way to the front of every line; this is not the moment to be excessively polite.


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