BRUSSELS — It was an emotional send-off on Sunday for a Brussels Airlines plane heading to the Portuguese city of Faro — the first passenger flight to take off from Brussels Airport since suicide bombings on March 22 ripped through its check-in counters and killed 16 people.
Airport officials suggested the first flight out was a symbolic victory over those who sowed death and hate, but said it would be months until full service is back.
Security at the airport was tight with new check-in procedures for passengers in temporary structures.
Two other planes were leaving Sunday — Brussels Airlines flights to Athens and Turin, Italy. The three flights were a test run for a European aviation hub that used to handle 600 flights a day and plans to slowly climb back to normal capacity.
Arnaud Feist, the CEO of Brussels Airport Co., said at a Saturday news conference that the three flights were a "sign of hope" following "the darkest days in the history of aviation in Belgium."
On Sunday, he thanked employees for their courage, solidarity and the "impressive work carried out in so little time."
"We are more than an airport ... We are a family more bound together than ever," he said at a ceremony at the airport.
"It will take time to accept what happened and more time to get over the pain," Feist said as the flight for Faro took off. "But we will never forget."
Damage was extensive when double suicide bombs exploded near its crowded check-in counters 12 days ago, killing 16 and maiming people from around the world. Another bombing that day on a Brussels subway train killed 16 other people. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.
Feist said Belgium's biggest airport would gradually climb to 20 per cent of capacity in the coming days, able to process 800 passengers an hour — maximum capacity for the temporary structures. He said Saturday that he hoped full service at the airport could be restored by the end of June or beginning of July, in time for the summer vacation season.
However, traffic may take time to return to its previous pace. Delta Airlines said on Saturday that it was suspending service between Atlanta and Brussels until March 2017.
"This is a very symbolic, also a very emotional moment for the airport community," airport president Marc Descheemaecker said at the ceremony. "We are turning a page, a page full of blood, but we have to rebuild this airport and we will do so."
New security measures at the airport aimed to minimize the chances of any repeat attacks.
Police on Sunday conducted spot checks of vehicles before they arrived. A large white tent was set up outside the terminal to screen travellers' IDs, travel documents and bags before they were allowed to enter a specially built area for check-in.
A drop-off parking area outside the terminal was closed down and authorities said there would be no rail or public transport access to the airport for the foreseeable future.
The bombers entered the check-in area with suitcases packed with explosives and nails, and the resulting blasts collapsed the airport's ceiling and shattered windows.
The attacks have prompted a wider discussion among aviation authorities in many countries over whether to impose routine security checks at the entry to airport terminals.
John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed. Ganley reported from Paris.
Bishr El Touni And Elaine Ganley, The Associated Press