Back on track

30 Nov 2009 by Alex McWhirter

New high-speed rail links and the scrapping of the eco-tax should help Amsterdam’s airport to revive its passenger numbers, says Alex McWhirter

Amsterdam Schiphol has joined the club – it’s poised to join that select group of European airports boasting a high-speed rail link. The new HSL-Zuid line opens in December and will link the airport with Rotterdam before continuing onwards into Belgium, where it will connect Antwerp and Brussels.

It means existing travel times between Schiphol and Rotterdam (by trains using the existing rail tracks) will be halved, with this mammoth port city now being reached in about 25 minutes. The fastest time to Brussels will fall from 146 minutes to 97 minutes.

The 300km per hour Thalys trains (a version of France’s TGV) will begin using the HSL-Zuid line on December 13. Six Thalys trains a day will link Schiphol with the cities mentioned before continuing on to Paris. When the full high-speed service is up and running in the second half of 2010, the train service will be more frequent. Thalys services will be complemented by 250km per hour Fyra trains, which are designed to cover medium distances. A trial Fyra service is now operating, but only as far as Rotterdam and only once an hour.

The full Fyra/Thalys service will see six trains an hour running to Rotterdam, with Antwerp and Brussels served every 30 minutes. Dutch airline KLM has a 10 per cent stake in Fyra and is expected to offer special facilities to air passengers using the new trains.

The faster trains mean that airlines using Schiphol will find it easier to attract passengers heading to or from Belgium. Brussels has relatively few long-distance flights, so passengers heading further afield are aware of having to use alternative gateways.

More good news for Schiphol in 2009 was the end of the much-criticised eco-tax. The axing of this from July 1 was warmly welcomed by the aviation and other industries. According to Dutch media reports, Schiphol celebrated the scrapping of the tax by offering passengers discounts in tax-free shops and treating them to a slice of a 200-metre long Dutch cream cake.

The problem was that eco-tax, ranging from e11 to e45 a person, was imposed in 2008 at a time when Schiphol’s passenger carryings were in the doldrums owing to the economic downturn. Schiphol airport, along with KLM, had warned the government that potential passengers would avoid the eco-tax by flying from airports in nearby countries. And this is what seems to have happened – according to airport statistics, passenger numbers in the first half of 2009 fell by 11.2 per cent compared with the same period the year before. Schiphol also handled 9.4 per cent fewer flights.

The eco-tax was expected to raise e300 million a year for the government, but experts reckon it cost the Dutch economy much more in lost revenue. “Schiphol lost an estimated 1.3 million passengers as a result of the eco-tax,” an airport spokeswoman says. “We hope passengers will start to return with the ending of this tax.”

Home airline KLM and its Skyteam alliance partners dominate flight schedules at Schiphol. And the main news is that KLM and its US partner Delta/Northwest will become an even stronger force in the transatlantic market through better scheduling via their hubs at Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis.

This winter sees KLM re-time its Atlanta flights so there is no longer a conflict with Delta’s daily service. KLM now leaves in the afternoon and returns from Atlanta in the evening. In contrast, Delta departs Schiphol in the morning, returning from Atlanta late afternoon. The new timings offer passengers another range of connecting possibilities through this key Skyteam hub.

When the summer timetable starts on March 28, the number of flights will rise from three to four a day in the case of Detroit and from two to three a day for Minneapolis. There will also be more flights to New York JFK and, from June, additional services to Seattle. Jan Feenstra, Delta’s sales manager for Benelux, says: “Passengers will be able to access more destinations than ever thanks to more than 200 weekly flights between Amsterdam and North America.”

Full-fare economy class passengers flying with KLM on long-haul routes will now get more comfort for their money. The carrier has just installed new Economy Comfort seats across its intercontinental fleet, for which it is charging an extra e80 to e150 (based on distance) per sector, although these fees are either waived or reduced for higher tier frequent flyer scheme members. The new product can be described as a poor man’s premium economy. Passengers are accommodated on normal economy seats at the front of the cabin but they get up to 4in/10cm more legroom and double the normal angle of recline (up from 3.5in/9cm to 7in/18cm).

Closer to home, the economic situation has prompted KLM to cut flight frequency to some UK airports, but the airline says passengers making connections at Amsterdam should not notice any difference owing to clever scheduling. The cutbacks are seen on regional routes to Cardiff, Manchester, Edinburgh, Norwich and Humberside, where one daily flight has been dropped.

The good news is that London City and the new Liverpool service remain unchanged, while KLM’s Heathrow frequency moves from eight to 11 services a day. Easyjet is also expanding and now serves 12 destinations from Schiphol, including three of London’s airports. This winter sees the low-cost carrier launch a daily service to Rome Fiumicino and 12 flights a week to Madrid. And on routes to London Luton and Milan Malpensa, it is increasing frequency from two to three flights a day. So this should also help to get passenger numbers back up.

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