Friday, 25 March 2016
Places in the news: Brussels and Buenos Aires
[National Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism in Buenos Aires, visited yesterday by US President Obama]
News and events, even on the other side of the world, have more impact when we can relate them to our own experiences.
In the last few days, I've been thinking a lot about the sites of memory of state terrorism in Argentina. One of these memorials that I visited and wrote about last year was the site yesterday of a visit and major speech (video, transcript) by US President Obama about the relationship of the US government to state terrorism in Argentina and the Southern Cone.
I've also been thinking a lot about Brussels, one of my favorite cities to visit and one of those where I've spent the most time in recent years. So far as I know, nobody I know was hurt in either the bombings or the police raids this week, but it was jarring to see photos taken on blocks I've walked down many times, and where bombs went off at the Maelbeek ("Mill Valley") subway station closest to where I've most often stayed. Brussels is a much more complex and interesting place than people realize who breeze through on an If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium bus tour. There's Brussels the capital of Europe, Brussels the capital of Belgium and place where Flanders and Wallonia do or don't meet, and Brussels of distinct neighborhoods and communities. Here's a perceptive portrait of Brussels in the current New York Review of Books by someone who spent a month last year in an apartment on Rue Stevin, the same street where one of best friends in Brussels used to live.
What should governments do about events like this? Patrick Smith, a pilot for a major US airline and the author of the thoughtful Ask the Pilot blog and books (and who at one time was flying mostly between the USA and Brussels), has a great column about The Brussels Airport Attack: In the Wake of the Bombings, Some Bad Ideas About Airport Security. Sadly, I doubt many European politicians will be listening to him. In the wake of the bombings, they are more likely to repeat mistakes the USA has made since 9/11. I fear that my European friends and I will have our work cut out for us in the coming months.
For Muslim Belgians and many other Muslim Europeans and Muslim visitors to Europe, the backlash is likely to be long and harsh, as it has been for Muslim Americans and Muslim visitors to the USA since 9/11. For other people, the short-term issues are likely to be those related to the continuing closure of the main Brussels airport at Zaventem (IATA code "BRU"). Because investigators are still searching the area for bomb fragments and other clues, the airport is closed to all flights through at least this Sunday and possibly longer: "There will be no passenger flights into and out of Brussels Airport until Sunday 27 March included. Until we have assessed the damage, it remains unclear when we can resume operations."
What can you do if you were planning to fly to or from Brussels before BRU re-opens?
- If you haven't yet bought a ticket, and are travelling only within Europe or other nearby countries, the alternate "Brussels South" airport at Charleroi (IATA code "CRL") remains open as normal. It's much further from Brussels than Zaventem (Charleroi is actually a distinct Walloon provincial city) and -- somewhat unusually for anywhere in Belgium -- lacks good rail connections to the capital. But there are reasonably efficient, if somewhat slow, direct buses between CRL and central Brussels. The main problem with CRL is that it is served mainly by a completely different set of "low-fare" and short-haul airlines than the "mainstream" airlines that serve BRU. Most of the airlines that serve CRL don't have route systems that extend any further than Europe, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean, and don't have ticketing agreements with long-haul airlines.
- Trains are operating more-or-less normally, although with substantial delays at station entrances. Arrive early! There are direct high-speed trains between the Gare du Midi ("South Station") in Brussels and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS), Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), the Gare du Nord in central Paris (with connections on the RER commuter train back out to CDG), and central London (with somewhat tedious rail connections to any of the London airports). There are many more direct trains to AMS than to CDG (but see more on both of these rail routes below), so the most obvious although not necessarily best thing to do, if you can find seats available, is to buy a new train ticket between Brussels and AMS, and get your flight ticket rerouted from BRU to AMS.
- Although for the time being no flights are operating to or from BRU, both Air France and KLM (but no other airlines) are still operating "flights" from central Brussels -- and, amazingly, they have seats available! How's that? Air France doesn't fly to any Brussels airport, but instead has dedicated Air France cars with Air France codeshare "flight" numbers on certain direct TGV trains between CDG and the Gare du Midi in Brussels. KLM normally has some commuter flights between AMS and BRU, but also has KLM codeshare flight numbers on "Thalys" high-speed trains between the Gare du Midi and AMS. Even when BRU airport is operating normally, these KLM and Air France codeshare high-speed trains are often the best long-haul connections to and from BRU. I was surprised to find that seats were still available in most booking classes (i.e. fares) today and throughout the next few days on some of these trains. I guess that most people who hear that the airport is completely shut down don't think to check if an airline still has seats to and from that city. It's especially important to note that because Air France has dedicated cars with a separate inventory of seats for sale, there can be cheap seats available through Air France, in conjunction with Air France long-haul flights, on trains between Brussels and CDG that the French and Belgian railways (SNCF and SNCB) show as sold out or available only at the highest fares.
- If you already have a ticket on an airline other than Air France or KLM, don't despair. Contact the airline on which you are ticketed, and see if they reroute you on Air France via CDG or KLM via AMS, find you seats on AF or KL codeshare trains to or from Brussels, and "endorse" your tickets to AF or KL. That could get you all the way to or from Brussels with your existing tickets and no additional payment, saving you EUR100 or more each way for the cost of a separate TGV or Thalys ticket between Brussels and CDG or AMS. (Airline staff may need to specify the "airport" code for the Gare du Midi in Brussels, ZYR, to find these codeshare trains. Not all CRS systems recognize ZYR as an alternate "airport" for BRU.) I wish that I had a ticket to Brussels tomorrow!