The partnership between Amsterdam Schiphol and KLM offers a lifeline to flyers in the regions wishing to connect with the world, says Alex McWhirter.

Readers with long memories will recall the days when Amsterdam Schiphol promoted itself as London’s third airport. That claim was made in the days when our capital had two main scheduled airports, Heathrow and Gatwick. But with the growth of scheduled traffic at Luton and Stansted, plus the opening of City, it no longer holds true.

But what is relevant today is Schiphol’s current claim of being able to connect the UK with the world. Mind you, the Schiphol connection is not so important to Londoners. That is because Heathrow spoils the capital’s residents with choice – with the glaring exception of mainland China. For this fast-growing market, it is only possible to fly direct from Heathrow to two cities – Beijing and Shanghai – whereas Schiphol provides air service to no fewer than six (see panel, facing page).

Speaking to The Guardian in November, BAA commercial director John Holland-Kaye said that Heathrow’s domestic routes had lost customers because of European airports such as Amsterdam Schiphol, which was luring passengers from Edinburgh as it offered destinations that Heathrow could not, such as the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

When it comes to regional travellers, it’s no contest, since our national airline has taken the decision to axe its international flights from every UK airport bar London. It means business people based outside the capital must either trek to a London airport by train or car, or fly indirectly using an overseas hub.

It is the KLM/Schiphol partnership that serves more regional airports than any other. It provides a vital link for local businesses wishing to depart from UK cities as far north as Aberdeen, as far south as Bristol, as far west as Cardiff and as far east as Norwich. Depending on the city, flights are operated either by KLM mainline or its Cityhopper subsidiary. In the case of cities such as Liverpool, Leeds, Durham, Hull and Norwich, Schiphol provides their sole global link.

“I can’t overstate how important KLM’s link is to the city of Liverpool,” says Robin Tudor, head of PR at Peel Airports (the operator of Liverpool). “Yes, we have Easyjet and Ryanair flying from here, but the worldwide connection is missing. We haven’t had a direct air link with Heathrow since the early nineties and achieving one now would be impossible because Heathrow is full.

“So to gain an international connection for our city we had to look further afield. We enticed KLM to start a service from here, not just because of the potential for Liverpool and the surrounding region, but also for the purpose of winning inward investment and tourism.” (Liverpool was the only UK city to have a pavilion at Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010).

What about nearby Manchester – could that not act as Liverpudlians’ local airport? “Yes,” Tudor says, “you can go to Manchester and either fly long-haul or take a connection to Heathrow or elsewhere. But with KLM’s [Liverpool] route you can do it all from your own doorstep.”

Norwich is another example. It, too, was stripped of its Heathrow air link many years ago, and so without Schiphol, the East Anglican capital would be isolated. The Dutch hub is a natural gateway considering that Amsterdam is not much further from Norwich than London. East Anglicans heading long-haul must endure long-winded road or rail journeys to Heathrow or Gatwick. Even when flying short-haul, they find that Stansted – the nearest airport with a choice of flights – is about 145km away down the A11/M11.

Andrew Bell, Norwich airport’s chief executive, says: “KLM Cityhopper links Norwich to the world three times a day. The flight time is 35 minutes and Schiphol provides a world-class hub that easily rivals or surpasses our UK equivalent in terms of passenger experience.

“With a journey time of more than two and a half hours to Heathrow or Gatwick from our catchment area, it is clear why more than 120,000 people use KLM from Norwich every year.”

KLM flew 130,000 passengers from Liverpool to Amsterdam in 2010, meanwhile. Both of these figures are impressive when you consider that the carrier uses only small planes on the routes.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that KLM is not a fickle carrier – it has operated services to minor UK airports through thick and thin. Tudor says: “It takes time for a new route to be established and KLM makes the effort. It provides long-term commitment.”

KLM winter schedules

Passengers from the UK and mainland Europe transiting Schiphol this winter will encounter up to seven waves of connecting flights. These will enable the carrier to expand the number of destinations it can cover in South America and Asia.

  • Europe: The Dutch airline has added extra services linking Schiphol with Berlin Tegel, Frankfurt, Geneva, Prague and Zurich in its winter schedule. In addition, the route to Aalborg in Denmark, which was successfully started this summer, has been continued.
  • US: New York JFK/Newark is served by 26 flights a week. There are two daily flights to Atlanta and Minneapolis and a three-times daily service to Detroit. Flights are operated in conjunction with Delta – the US carrier tends to operate all flights to Atlanta, Minneapolis and Detroit, while both it and KLM share the New York flights. The operation has been running smoothly for years and it is recognised as one of the best transatlantic partnerships.
  • South America: KLM has added Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires with three flights a week each.
  • Africa: Luanda joins the network with a twice-weekly service. The schedule to Cape Town has been increased from five to seven services a week.
  • Middle East: Flights to Dammam (in Saudi Arabia) and Doha have been increased from five to six flights a week, and capacity to Tehran has been increased by using larger aircraft.
  • Far East: There are daily flights to both Tokyo Narita and Osaka, but the Tokyo frequency has been cut from ten to seven flights a week. The big news remains the greater China region, where Schiphol, along with Frankfurt, acts as a major gateway. Besides flights to Hong Kong and Taipei, KLM serves five cities on the mainland – Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Xiamen. In addition, there are codeshared flights with China Southern to Guangzhou.