Airlines are warily watching the situation at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport where a caretaker Dutch government is pushing through a dramatic cut in the number of flights. Airport officials are working hard to provide the industry with clarity on just what the cuts, which could still be reversed, mean as airlines plan their schedules for next summer.
“We’re trying to explain what’s going on, [and] provide perspective,” Schiphol Head of Aviation Partnerships Joery Strijtveen said at the Routes World conference in Istanbul earlier in October.
And Strijtveen was in the right place to set the record straight. Routes is the annual gathering of airports and airline network planners where they meet to talk about, you guessed it, routes. This allowed airport officials to sit down with many of their airline partners and explain the situation behind the public statements and capacity declaration by Schiphol slot coordinator, Airport Coordination Netherlands (ACNL).
The number of aircraft movements at Schiphol is set to be capped at 280,645 next summer season, which runs from the end of March through the end of October for airlines, according to ACNL. That represents a nearly 8% cut from the summer of 2019, part of an effort by the Dutch government to reduce noise pollution in the neighborhoods around the airport. The aim is to reduce movements to 460,000 annually from 500,000 before the pandemic.
But an 8% reduction may just be the beginning. The Dutch government has said it eventually wants to cut movements by 12%, or to 440,000 annually.
Put another way, Schiphol would have fewer annual flights than the physically smaller London Heathrow. Heathrow, which has two runways to Schiphol’s six (only five are capable of handling large passenger aircraft), handled nearly 476,000 aircraft movements in 2019. The difference is that London is a much larger and more lucrative market for airlines than Amsterdam, which has made its name as one of the leading connecting hubs in Europe.
The most affected is KLM, which will operate 55% of flights at Schiphol this year, according to Cirium Diio schedule data. EasyJet is the second largest at the airport with an 8% share of flights followed by Transavia, the budget subsidiary of Air France-KLM, with a 7% share.
But the issue of flights at Schiphol is more than just a government priority. It is a political issue championed by the governing party, the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy which has been in power since 2010, as the Netherlands prepares for a general election on November 22. Pushing through the Schiphol reductions now, weeks before the election, could be read as part of the ruling party’s politicking for votes.
Airlines have already mounted legal challenges but a decision is not expected until sometime next year — months after the general election.
KLM is vocally opposed to cutting flights. CEO Marjan Rintel has repeatedly called for a “balanced approach” to reduce noise that would focus on things like pushing airlines to fly newer, quieter planes, changing flight paths to avoid dense neighborhoods, and reducing night flights. Cutting the overall number of movements, she has said, should only be a last resort.
At Routes, Airports Council International (ACI) Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec said he was “extremely concerned” about the Dutch government’s planned flight reductions at Schiphol. He described it as “policy greenwashing” that would do more harm than good.
The cuts for next summer are not — at least not yet — permanent. The Dutch government plans to implement them under an “experimental” regulation or scheme, which is a process by which it can implement a policy for a temporary period to measure its effectiveness. That experimental regulation, according to the government, follows about a decade of government policy, but no official legislation, to cap flights — and reduce noise — at Schiphol.
In other words, the Dutch government believes it is within its rights to cut flights at the airport. For one, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management noted in a September report to the European Commission that the current cap of 500,000 annual aircraft movements was set in 2016 by a consultative body and not set in law.
Not everyone agrees with the government’s point of view or its use of an experimental regulation. KLM and other airlines have taken the government back to court in an attempt to block the flight reductions. An airline spokesperson said that they “believe that the experimental scheme should not be used in this way.”
The case is expected to go in front of the Dutch Supreme Court in December or January, with a decision in the first half of next year.
JetBlue’s Claim to Schiphol Flights
JetBlue Airways, which only began flights to Schiphol this summer, is pushing the U.S. Department of Transportation to get involved. It has argued in multiple filings with the regulator since September that the Dutch government’s cuts in Amsterdam violate certain aspects of the U.S.-European Union open-skies agreement, and that the use of an experimental regulation is “illegal.” However, the airline acknowledged in June that it was beginning Schiphol flights with “non-historic” slots that gave it “no claim” on flight slots in future seasons.
The New York-based airline has gone so far as to call for the “suspension of all KLM services” to New York’s JFK airport. It cited the rules governing KLM’s immunized joint venture with Delta under the open-skies agreement as its rationale for the penalty. At a minimum, JetBlue wants the DOT to mandate that KLM transfer it at least two Schiphol slot pairs for flights next summer.
The U.S. has opened a new regulatory proceeding on the issue of Schiphol access. However, as pointed out in earlier filings by the government of the Netherlands and the European Commission, the U.S.-EU open-skies agreement only guarantees market access and not airport slots.
“In open skies, it’s every man for themselves,” said one industry player who has worked on numerous open skies agreements on acquiring airport slots.
One example frequently cited is Heathrow. The U.S.-EU open-skies agreement opened the airport to all U.S. airlines. Carriers that lacked access to Heathrow quickly added flights by acquiring slots on their own — and at great expense — on the secondary market. The Dutch government, however, does not allow secondary market sales of Schiphol slots.
The Better Tough Option
“If the [ministry] was not doing what they are doing now with this temporary arrangement, people living around the airport could go to court [and] we might end up with an even more stricter number than the 460,000, 440,000 [movements] that the government is saying,” Schiphol Airline Partnerships Manager Wilco Sweijen said at Routes. “There were even talks of under 400,000. That would hurt the industry even harder.”
Airlines with historical slot portfolios at Schiphol, in other words, a right to future slots at the airport, must reduce their schedules by 3-4%, he said. The slot coordinator, ACNL, is working with airlines to determine the best solution for them.
There are several ways airlines with historical Schiphol slots could make the necessary reductions. They could reduce weekly frequencies, for example suspending flights on Saturdays. Or they could shorten the period during which they fly, for example from April through September instead of March through October.
The “capacity declaration is what KLM will now base its planning on, as we believe it is important that our customers are not surprised by changes in our flight schedule,” a KLM spokesperson said.
Attendees at Routes indicated that KLM was not planning any significant longhaul expansion next summer, unlike many of its European peers.
Alternative Growth Opportunities
Fewer flights do not necessarily mean fewer seats. Air France-KLM has ordered 100 Airbus A320neos and A321neos for KLM and Transavia to replace older Boeing 737s. Many of these new planes will be larger than the ones they replace, which will allow for some growth even without additional flights. Similarly, KLM is in the process of renewing its shorthaul fleet of 100-seat Embraer E190s with 132-seat Embraer E195-E2s.
And EasyJet, when it unveiled plans to order another 147 A321neos earlier in October, said the planes with 235 seats would “provide EasyJet with the opportunity to continue to grow in slot-constrained airports.” The budget airline, the second largest at Schiphol, operates more than 99% of its flights at the airport today on Airbus A319 or A320 aircraft that have 156-186 seats, Cirium Diio data show.
Then there is always the option that airlines find new ways to serve Amsterdam. KLM CEO Rintel has highlighted the airline’s 2019 decision — the pandemic delayed implementation to 2022 — to replace one of its five daily Brussels flights with a train as a climate-friendly way to better use limited slots at Schiphol.
“We really need to promote going by train within 500 kilometers,” Rintel said last year.
However, the number of shorthaul routes under 500 kilometers (310 miles) that KLM could replace by time-competitive trains is limited. Only Brussels, Paris, and Dusseldorf are currently within a three-hour train journey from Amsterdam. Frankfurt and London are around a four-hour train ride from Amsterdam. However, most of these services require at least one transfer when traveling from Schiphol.
And then there is always the option of alternative airports. While this is not an alternative for KLM’s hub that depends on flight connectivity at Schiphol, it could be attractive to other airlines that serve Amsterdam as a spoke. The Rotterdam airport, for example, is only an hour’s drive or 40-minute train trip from central Amsterdam.