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Connecting regional UK airports to Amsterdam Schiphol is the “bread and butter” of KLM’s operations in the country, the airline’s CEO said this week.

At a press conference in London attended by Business Traveller, Pieter Elbers said that while KLM wants to find ways to add movements (take offs and landings) at Schiphol – which are currently constrained by regulations related to noise and emissions – doing so would not come at the expense of its connections to smaller airports.

KLM flies to 16 points in the UK, including Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Durham, Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle.

“It’s the bread and butter of what we do,” Elbers said of these non-London routes to Schiphol, which provides the option to fly on to more than 150 destinations.

“If you want to fly from Cardiff to Sao Paolo or Osaka or Hangzhou, we are your best choice. That’s what we’re done for the last 20 years and that’s what we’ll do going forward.

“The moment we stop doing Cardiff and reallocate that [slot] to a new destination in the US, you start to disrupt the system and the wheel.”

That regional focus will only be strengthened with the upcoming expansion of a joint venture between the Air France-KLM group, Delta and Virgin Atlantic, Elbers said.

Earlier this year, Virgin acquired UK-based airline Flybe in an aim to improve its connectivity into London Heathrow and Manchester.

Elbers added that flag carrier British Airways had “made decisions early on” about how to use its slots at Heathrow and had chosen not to use them for the same breadth of domestic connections.

Asked whether Amsterdam could be considered a hub for the north of the UK, he responded with a smile: “We would never consider ourselves more British than the UK, that would be nonsense, of course. But I like to tease Willie Walsh with it every now and then.”

Walsh is the CEO of International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, Iberia, Level and Aer Lingus.

In a wide-ranging press conference ahead of the airline’s centenary on Monday, Elbers also discussed sustainability, fleet harmonisation and on-board products.

KLM recently launched a ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign, a response to increasing discussion of aviation’s contribution to climate change (estimated by IATA to be 2 per cent of man-made carbon emissions).

The campaign encourages passengers to be more mindful about how often they fly, and consider making certain routes by train; somewhat of a surprise, given the airline’s business.

It followed this up with an announcement that from March 29 next year it will cut one of its five daily flights between Amsterdam and Brussels, a journey of just 108 miles, and allow customers to use its website to book a train ride with Thalys instead.

“We should put our money where our mouth is when it comes to sustainability,” Elbers said, predicting that along with digitalisation it would dominate the airline’s agenda in the coming years.

He said that adding the train option is not as easy as it might seem, owing to “tactical issues” like seat inventory, potential disruptions and luggage handling. But these should be worked out over the next six months.

Also important for the airline will be encouraging more passengers to agree to carbon offset their flights, perhaps by making it an opt-out system, and continuing to invest in the development of biofuels through its stake in company Sky NRG.

“Like flight safety, it’s not something to compete on,” Elbers said.

“It’s somewhere we should work together and align with other companies, share best practices and knowledge to move forward.”

He called the prediction of low-cost carrier Easyjet that electric aircraft could be flying short hops such as London-Amsterdam in the foreseeable future unrealistic.

“It’s just technically not possible – maybe with two passengers on board, but then the question is whether it is worth the investment in that battery and the emissions and cost to produce it,” he said.

What’s of greater interest, he added, is the possibility of working on new aircraft designs. To that end it has partnered with Delft University to work on a prototype of a “Flying-V” plane that promises greater fuel savings through a more aerodynamic shape.

When it comes to eco-taxes, which are being introduced or raised in several European countries, Elbers said it was important it could compete on a “level playing field”.

“What’s important for us as a European carrier is that we keep a level playing field. If you fly from Nairobi to San Francisco, you need to transfer somewhere. If you transfer in the Gulf and you’re not paying any green taxes but you transfer in Europe and you’re paying a lot of green taxes, it won’t help the environment very much.

“That’s part of the discussion we’re having in the Netherlands where flight taxes are going to be introduced. We should make sure we allocate that money to invest in research, in biofuels, where it’s needed more.”

Other priorities for the airline include fleet renewal and harmonisation.

KLM is now down from 22 to seven B747 aircraft, which are all being replaced by B787s and B777s, and recently placed a firm order for another 15 Embraer 195-E2s for its short-haul services.

Source: Business Traveller News