The Dutch-speaking north of Belgium is home to a clutch of successful aerospace manufacturers. However, unlike Wallonia, Flanders is a latecomer to aerospace. This is something many in the region blame on the central planning mentality of post-war federal governments that directed investment and contracts to the traditional heavy industry in the south and around the capital, Brussels.

The move into aerospace came in the past quarter century and was a result of two factors, according to the Flemish Aerospace Group or FLAG, set up in 1980 to help establish the region's aerospace credentials. Firstly, increasing devolution gave the north clout to push for a bigger share of offset workshare on military programmes - Dutch speakers make up about 60% of Belgium's population. Secondly, business-friendly economic policies and an entrepreneurial culture in the north allowed smaller, nimble and risk-taking enterprises to thrive.

Flemish aerospace concerns include visual systems giant Barco, whose products cover everything from entertainment to medical imaging, Zaventem-based aerostructures manufacturer Asco, gears specialist BMT Aerospace/Eurair based in Oostkamp, and Leuven-based simulation provider LMS.

Boeing 787 in flight
 © Boeing
Four Flemish aerospace companies supply Boeing on the 787

The growth of the Flemish aerospace sector is evident in the fact that, while only two companies in the region were involved in the early Airbus programmes, 11 build parts of the A380, while four supply Boeing on the 787, according to FLAG.

As with almost everything in Belgian life, the aerospace sectors in the two regions are highly separate. Occasionally there is overlap. Brussels-based Sabca, which is jointly owned by Dassault of France and Fokker parent Stork of the Netherlands, has plants in Wallonia and Flanders. Asco and BMT alongside majority shareholder Sonaca in Wallonia make up the Belairbus consortium, which produces the wing leading edge on most Airbus aircraft. The two regions co-operate under the national banner of Belgian Aerospace at air shows and a separate federal association, GEBECOMA, does its best to represent the industry nationally.

However, despite its success with civil programmes, Flanders' industry has been less lucky when it comes to the Airbus Military A400M airlifter, of which Belgium has ordered seven (and will operate another for Luxembourg). FLAG's managing director Karel Vervoort blames politicians. "The A400M was the worst-managed government programme in the country," he says. "We were not looking for something for nothing," but Flemish industry was "denied the opportunity to compete" in areas including avionics and maintenance, repair and overhaul, where its companies could have outperformed many foreign firms that did win deals, he maintains.

Airbus Military A400M
 © Airbus Military
Belgium has ordered seven A400Ms, but industry has not done well on workshare

On the whole, the growth of aerospace in the north of Belgium has been "spectacular" says Vervoort. Companies that started in the sector only in the 1980s have become "world champions" within 20 years. The association puts this down to the very different approach to industry in the north, where industry had to focus on starting small with as many customers as possible across the world, rather relying on workshare on military programmes by big local champions.

"It explains why the aerospace industry in the north of Belgium is different and complementary to the more traditional industry in the south."

Source: Flight International