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 Paulo or Osaka or Hangzhou, we are your best choice. That’s what we’ve 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.

KLM to work with university on fuel-efficient ‘Flying-V’ aircraft

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.

It also announced it would ‘swap’ an aircraft order for seven A350-900s with Air France’s order for six B787s to achieve a more consistent fleet.

“What has served KLM well in the last few years is to standardise the fleet and avoid all these different aircraft types,” Elbers said.

“At Air France, which welcomed its first A350 last Friday, there was a desire to move up quick. So the swap was a pretty easy arrangement.”

A consistent business class product is also important, he said, which KLM has achieved through retrofits and orders over the last four years in order to provide fully-flat beds and aisle access for all passengers. The next step will be to roll out a consistent wifi package that will be available across long-haul; this will come on new deliveries as well as through a retrofit programme.

KLM is notable for not offering a fully-fledged premium economy product, while many other airlines are raving about its benefits both to passengers and their own profit margins. KLM’s Economy Comfort seats offer more legroom and recline, but few other benefits over base fares.

It is something the carrier is in the middle of reconsidering, according to Elbers.

“We started seven or eight years ago with Economy Comfort as an ancillary, and a lot of consumers flying from Amsterdam to LA want to pay 150 euros for Comfort but on the way back they don’t want it, so it was really pick-and-choose.

“It has worked very, very well. But the reality today with the maturity of the airline and our partners, Air France, Virgin and Delta, is they have a separate class. So we do want to minimise the seams between ourselves.

“It depends on the view on the economic cycle, where are we and what does it do for business travel. So far we have been OK with this at KLM, but if everyone is driving on the other side of the road then you start to question – should we switch lanes?”

However he said it was too early to give an indication of the likelihood of a premium economy launch, especially given that it would take a few years to develop the product and roll it out once that decision had been made.

One thing Elbers is emphatic on, though, is that KLM will continue to offer complimentary drinks and snacks on board short-haul flights.

“It will be kept, we will not change that. It’s an integral part of our product,” he said.

“My personal strong conviction is that this is the KLM brand and it’s what we stand for. You get a drink, you get a sandwich … It’s what our customers expect from us.”

And what else can customers expect from the airline as it turns 100? More investments in biometric technology, for one, although in the US before Europe which is more constrained by GDPR, and not in the UK any time soon. Uncertainty around Brexit and what it will do to the investment environment and passenger numbers, for another. Elbers says he does not want to “add speculation” at a time already filled with so much of it, though he says agreements are in place to ensure operations will continue as normal.

“Along our 100 year history we have seen the importance of connecting the Netherlands to the world and the world to the Netherlands,” he said in a summing-up statement.

“Today we’re alive and kicking, ready for the next 100 years, and ready to continue to serve our customers here in the UK.”

Subscribers can read about the early days of KLM in this month’s From the Archive. 

From the archive: November 1981