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Thijs Komen

100 Years in the Air

Edith Balázs
September 30, 2019

The Dutch flag carrier is celebrating its 100th anniversary this October amid turbulent times for the aviation industry. The airline will need to rely on its commitment to adapting to shifting operational trends and embracing new technologies if it is to celebrate its bicentennial anniversary.

The Dutch propensity for traveling and exploring the farthest corners of the world has shaped the country’s history for centuries. As early as the 16th century, the Dutch extended their trade routes beyond northern Europe to new markets in the Mediterranean and began to trade with Brazil and the Dutch Gold Coast of Africa, moving ever closer to the Indian Ocean and the source of the spice trade, a lucrative business for European seafaring nations for centuries to come. It is little wonder that the Netherlands was home to KLM, one of the world’s first airlines, that allowed this wandering nation to reach far-flung places in considerably shorter times. Set up in October 1919 under the name Royal Dutch Airlines for the Netherlands and Colonies, KLM is the oldest airline in the world still operating under its original name. As the carrier celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, it is faced with an industry that is under increasing competitive and sustainability pressure.

Industry pioneer

“The secret behind our history is constant adaptation to the new reality by innovating and pioneering new solutions; otherwise we would not exist any longer,” Thijs Komen, General Manager for Alps, Balkans and Central Europe tells Diplomacy&Trade. Indeed, the airline has been an industry pioneer many times over. It launched the first intercontinental flight to Indonesia, then one of the Dutch colonies, in 1924. The journey took 55 days with numerous stopovers along the way, including Budapest. The 1936 initiation of service between Amsterdam and New York made KLM the first airline to connect mainland Europe with America, and the carrier was the first in the history of aviation to forge a joint venture with Northwestern Airlines (currently Delta), recognizing the economies of scale that determine the entire industry. The design of that joint venture has since been copy-pasted by many other airlines. The Air France and KLM merger in 2004 was also an industry first, as no flag carriers had previously merged into a single company while keeping their independent brands.

Flying responsibly

At a time when the protection of the environment emerges as the biggest challenge for the aviation industry, figuring out how to fly in a sustainable manner is no longer a side issue. KLM, which has ranked at the top of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 14 years, increasingly positions itself as a leader in sustainability. “I’m convinced that demand for air travel will grow as people want to travel and explore. We feel a responsibility to work on sustainability because we know we are polluting. We can only survive another 100 years if we adapt to the scarcity of resources, limit CO2 emissions and look for alternative fuel resources,” Komen notes. Accordingly, the airline is now working on a ‘2030 and beyond’ sustainability strategy under which it aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020 and by 50% by 2050 compared to 2005. A cornerstone of that strategy is the purchase of new aircraft that are much more fuel efficient, like the new generation of Boeing’s Dreamliner 787, which is up to 40% more efficient than the previous generation. Additionally, KLM is redesigning the routes it flies and cooperates closely with air traffic control authorities worldwide to make sure it uses the most efficient routes. Reducing weight also features high on KLM’s agenda and the company is investing in equipment made of lighter materials, like its onboard catering trolleys. On a long flight of 11-12 hours, 1,000 kilograms of extra weight account for 300 kilograms of fuel. As a pioneer in the use of alternative fuel, KLM launched its first biofuel flight from Amsterdam to Paris in 2011 and operated the first intercontinental flight with biofuel to New York in 2013. Flying on biofuel can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80% compared to fossil fuels, Komen highlights. The airline is in cooperation with the Technical University in Delft to develop a next generation aircraft, called Flying V. The aircraft’s V-shaped design will integrate the passenger cabin, the cargo hold and the fuel tanks in the wings. Its improved aerodynamic shape and reduced weight will require 20% less fuel than the Airbus A350, today’s most advanced aircraft. A flying scale model and a full-size section of the interior of the Flying-V will be officially presented at the KLM Experience Days at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in October.

Do you really need to fly?

KLM’s open letter on responsible flying published in July this year caused an international sensation. The release invited “consumers to carefully consider their options before booking a flight,” marking the first time an air carrier encouraged travelers to look for alternative means of transportation. “Besides airlines taking a share of the responsibility, we as travelers also need to question ourselves: do I always need to travel and if I do, do I absolutely need to fly? The aviation industry, individual travelers and companies that have business travel all have to act responsibly,” Komen says. KLM’s ’Fly Responsibly’ campaign sends a message to travelers: if you fly you can compensate for CO2 emissions. Individuals who make a booking on the KLM website have the option to compensate for the CO2 emissions of their flight and the proceeds go to a sustainability project chosen by KLM, which for the past few years has been the Panama reforestation project. Passengers can select the amount that matches the amount of CO2 burnt on their flight, which in the case of short flights is only a few euros. “The scheme has been in place for 10 years, but we still find that if given the choice to fly sustainably, only a few travelers go the extra mile. The number of people who choose to pay the compensation amount is currently below 1%, but I’m convinced this will change,” Komen says.

Edith Balázs

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