Pieter Elbers believes the world is about to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, but tempers his optimism by saying the road will be “wheelbarrow.” Transatlantic travel may have increased after the United States reopened to vaccinated travelers on Nov. 8, but long-distance travel will take some time to return to pre-pandemic levels, he said.
On Nov. 8, the first day the U.S. reopened vaccinated foreign travelers, KLM planes across the North Atlantic were 97 percent full, a remarkable statistic at best, but even more astonishing. now, during a global pandemic, when planes flying internationally. the routes are full on average about 60 percent.
“This is a testament and a testament to people’s willingness to travel,” KLM CEO Pieter Elbers said Wednesday at the Skift Aviation Forum. “It’s a demonstration of people wanting to get back on the air.”
The North Atlantic was the most important market for KLM before the pandemic. The airline does not have a domestic market, as the Netherlands is too small geographically to maintain a large domestic airline industry, so KLM makes money by connecting passengers through its hub in Amsterdam. “It’s the backbone of our long-haul network,” Elbers said.
A growing part of this trip is premium leisure, or leisure passengers who buy premium class fares for vacation travel. KLM is “in a good place” to capture some of that demand, as its business booths are relatively small, compared to those of its competitors. But it offers more premium economy options than some of its competitors. KLM had already started adding a premium economy class to its flights before the pandemic and. this work is gaining momentum now that the recovery is underway, Elbers said.
Prior to the reopening of the United States, KLM had begun restoring its routes to the United States and most of its pre-pandemic destinations are back in service. The company is now working to add frequency to its flights and the cargo helped keep KLM flights to the US in business. But Elbers noted that the road ahead will be “road.”
“The world is on the path to recovery,” he said, but recovery is likely to be “stop and go”. Some parts of the world are re-imposing restrictions, testing requirements and quarantines in response to the new waves of Covid-19. Asia remains largely closed, although Elbers is encouraged by recent moves to Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Singapore to reopen, albeit partially. China’s recovery is still “far away,” but Elbers said, “I’m still optimistic.”
The return of business travel is an open question, although Elbers noted that European companies are sending workers back to the road as vaccination rates on the continent improve. Most trips to the U.S. so far have been leisure, but small and medium-sized businesses have resumed business travel across the Atlantic, albeit modestly. “We have to wait a little long [business] traffic, ”he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only changed the nature of travel. The way airlines see their role in climate change has also changed. Elbers noted KLM’s efforts over the years to mitigate its carbon emissions, but said the trend toward more environmentally sustainable airlines has accelerated. KLM is increasing the amount of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) it buys, but acknowledges that it cannot do it alone. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently adopted stricter carbon targets, and Elbers believes that with airlines acting in concert, SAF’s supply, now minimal, will grow in response to demand. .
But airlines are not alone in the fight. Manufacturers, governments and airlines need to work together to reduce the carbon footprint of air travel. Governments have a role to play in imposing more SAF production and streamlining air traffic control to allow for more efficient flight routes. Manufacturers should be more aggressive in developing new propulsion systems. And airlines should accelerate fleet transformation to remove less efficient aircraft types. “We have to tackle all the different levers to move forward,” he said.
KLM has done so in recent years, with the introduction of more efficient regional aircraft, the Embraer 195-E2 and the new Boeing 787s for its long-haul fleet, while withdrawing the older Boeing 747s. The carrier is still deciding which next-generation plane will replace its fleet of aged Boeing 737s, though Elbers refused to shake hands.
Electric aircraft, such as the “air taxis” ordered by American Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic, among others, will play an important role in reducing the carbon footprint of airlines, but technology as it stands. now it is still at an too early stage. to have a significant impact. “It’s a start,” Elbers said.