New KLM CEO Marjan Rintel has been in the job less than five months and already faces serious questions over the future of the airline she leads.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, the linchpin of KLM’s operation and success, has restricted passenger numbers due to staffing issues through March. But while staffing numbers will eventually recover, the government of the Netherlands wants to go a step further. A proposed climate policy would cap the number of flights at 440,000 annually starting next November; that’s about 57,000 fewer flights than operated in 2019. And permanently limiting the number of flights could make it impossible for KLM to recover from, not to mention grow out of, the pandemic.
The Dutch government needs to “follow a balanced approach,” Rintel said in an exclusive interview with Airline Weekly in New York. “Hopefully we are able [to] in the meantime to discuss with the Dutch government that there are better solutions.”
By “better” solutions, she referred to other ways the Dutch government could help the aviation sector cut emissions, and reduce noise, without artificially capping flights at Schiphol. For example, KLM’s orderbook of new Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer aircraft both reduce fuel burn — and emissions — by roughly a quarter and noise by up to 50 percent compared to older generation planes, Rintel said. In addition, moving forward with the all-but stalled Single European Sky air traffic control modernization initiative would cut emissions by shortening flight routes.
KLM has 100 Airbus A320neo and A321neo aircraft on order, as well as seven Boeing 787-10s and 13 Embraer E195-E2s. Most of the new planes will replace older models in the airline’s fleet.
But if the cap is implemented, KLM could be forced to cancel routes with its future growth prospects seriously curtailed. The airline has already said flights to destinations that range from Boston to Osaka, Porto, and Tel Aviv could be in jeopardy. And, without the ability to add new flights, KLM could be destined to incur ever higher costs without the ability to counter them with new revenues. The only growth option would be to operate larger aircraft on the flights it already operates.
“We have meetings with them in a couple of weeks, so hopefully at least they’re open to listen and open to discuss,” Rintel said when asked whether she saw the government as amenable to KLM’s position. “Hopefully, we at least could discuss the ambition [to reduce emissions and noise], and to see where our ambition is the same, and how can we achieve this ambition.”
Rintel took the top spot at KLM in July after long-time CEO Pieter Elbers departed for IndiGo. She was previously CEO of Dutch rail operator NS for eight years, and before that worked at both KLM and airport operator the Schiphol Group.
As a former rail executive, she sees significant promise in air-rail connections as one method to reduce carbon emissions. Rintel, as if to lead by example, took the train to Paris from Amsterdam on one of her first trips to the group’s headquarters as CEO of KLM.
“We really need to promote going by train within 500 kilometers — 500, 600 kilometers,” Rintel said. KLM already has “a lot of seat blocks” on Thalys trains that connect Schiphol to Brussels and Paris, which she said the airline will use to promote the connections to travelers. Rintel added that the carrier has replaced one of its five daily Amsterdam-Brussels flights with a train; she did not comment on whether it would replace the remaining four flights.
Rintel’s optimism towards the promise of air-rail connections is a change from the realist take of her predecessor. While Elbers supported the partnerships where feasible, he said last year that government funds could be “used more effectively in terms of investing in synthetic fuels, [and] in single European airspace” to achieve de-carbonization goals.
“We cannot offer the demand customers ask for,” Rintel said when asked about travel demand this winter, particularly during the historically slow first quarter, and echoing the view of Air France-KLM executives in October. KLM capacity will remain about 20 percent below 2019 levels until Schiphol lifts its passenger caps, which could occur after December, she said. Rintel expressed few concerns for the high inflation and energy prices that Europeans face this winter.
Rintel is, significantly, KLM’s first female leader in its century-plus history, and one of just a handful of female airline CEOs in the world. Others include Anne Rigail at Air France, Christine Ourmières-Widener at TAP Air Portugal, and Linda Markham at Cape Air. Stephanie Tully will take the top spot at Qantas Group-subsidiary Jetstar in January.
“Things are changing in Europe and in the Netherlands [with] more female leadership,” she said when asked about being KLM’s first female CEO. “And I’m not the only one in the [Air France-KLM] Group, I’m the second one in the group.”
Asked about comments that KLM needs to do more to increase diversity in its ranks, Rintel said: “I started day one, for every job and every short list, there must be a woman on the list. And we discussed how to accelerate on more diversity in general … We start to make plans and then see results, but it’s on top of my list daily.”