Sabena, the one-time flag airline of Belgium, has vanished into aviation history, but a handful of former Sabena employees is keeping the name alive at Falcon Field in Mesa.
Sabena Airline Training Center, 5010 E. Falcon Drive, is preparing the next generation of pilots to fly Boeing and Airbus aircraft for airlines in Europe and Asia.
In February, the company moved its training center from Scottsdale Municipal Airport to Falcon Field to accommodate growth as the company lines up more business with rapidly growing airlines in the developing world.
“We could not grow at Scottsdale because of the single runway and jet traffic,” said Kris Van den Bergh, managing director of the center. “We have two runways here (at Falcon Field) and less business jet traffic.”
With the global airline industry recovering from the post-9/11 slump, the pilot training center is expanding. This year Sabena is planning to graduate 350 pilots, up from 220 last year. Also, the center is buying 13 new state-of-the-art, fuel-efficient training aircraft to supplement its mostly-Piper fleet. And the center is growing its staff from about 50 employees to 90 by June, Van den Bergh said.
The growth is the result of contracts Sabena has signed to train pilots for Kingfisher Airlines and SpiceJet, both start-up domestic airlines in India.
“We are riding the wave of expansion in the airline industry,” Van den Bergh said.
That’s a big turnaround from 2001, when the post-9/11 collapse of international air travel caused Sabena to go bankrupt and cease operations. Sabena had been training its pilots at Scottsdale Municipal Airport since 1990, taking advantage of Arizona’s good flying weather. In 1995, the airline created Sabena Airlines Training Center as a subsidiary and in 1999 split it off as a separate entity to offer training services to other airlines as well.
As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Van den Bergh, formerly the head of pilot training for Sabena in Brussels, and his partner, Jack Waldeyer, who had been Sabena’s vice president of flight operations, acquired Sabena’s pilot-training operations in a management buyout.
When the deal was completed in 2004, they decided to keep the Sabena name to build on the legacy of the former carrier, and hired several ex-Sabena staff members as well.
“It (the Sabena brand) opens doors for us in Europe and Asia,” Van den Bergh said.
In addition to a fleet of 25 light airplanes and two simulators in Mesa, the company operates six simulators at Brussels Airport that mimic Boeing 737 and Airbus A320/330/340 aircraft. Those simulators continue to be used by numerous European airlines to train their pilots.
In Arizona, the company’s prime customer is KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, for which it trains about 150 pilots a year. Pilots also are trained for Air Malta and SN Brussels Airlines, the Belgian successor to Sabena airlines.
Sabena doesn’t train any students for U.S. airlines, but the company employs mostly American flight instructors, Van den Bergh said.
The program involves 20 to 30 weeks of training in Arizona. Once they obtain their pilot’s license for general aviation aircraft, the students are qualified to go on for training in specific Boeing or Airbus aircraft in Brussels or in their own airlines’ training programs, he said.
With many countries expanding their aviation industries and needing trained pilots in a hurry, the business possibilities for training programs like Sabena are considerable. Van den Bergh is talking to Chinese aviation officials, for example, about training pilots for China’s rapidly expanding airlines.
“We could not accommodate them this year,” he said. “We would have to buy more planes and hire more instructors. But maybe early next year. China needs 5,000 pilots in the next two years.”
The pilot training business is a big industry in Arizona. Online flight directories list more than 50 such schools in Arizona, which are attracted by the good year-around flying weather and wide-open air spaces.