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May 27, 2024
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They might have won the battle today in Dutch court, but it is not a foregone conclusion that airlines, IATA, and other stakeholders will also win the war next year when it comes to the planned capacity reduction at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. It shows how complicated things have become in The Netherlands when it comes to aviation policies – and not only that… Insight: why today’s win might not be enough for airlines at Schiphol.

AirInsight reported on March 3 that KLM, its subsidiary Transavia, leisure airlines Corendon and TUI, but also a group of airlines that included easyJet, Lufthansa, Delta Air Lines, and jetBlue announced summary proceedings against the Dutch State.

During the court session on March 21, the airlines strongly opposed the State’s initiative to cap the capacity of Amsterdam Schiphol to 460.000 aircraft movements from the coming winter season that starts on October 29, in an attempt to reduce noise pollution, emissions, and overall hindrance for citizens in the wider Amsterdam region. The State, the airlines argued, would have had to follow a precise procedure to motivate the capacity reduction, as prescribed in the European Union’s ‘Balanced Approach’ regulations. Lawyers representing the State and a group of citizens replied that this procedure wasn’t necessary, as it had already been completed under a 2008 law that regulated the airport’s capacity.

The court in Haarlem ruled today that the State has failed to follow the correct procedure. It should have adopted the Balanced Approach to better formulate why a reduction from 500.000 movements in 2019 to 460.000 in 2023/2024 is justified. It explained the modest satisfaction of KLM, which said: We would rather cooperate with the other parties than face them in court. We were unfortunately forced to file these preliminary relief proceedings to get clarity; the capacity for the coming winter will be determined at the beginning of May. With this verdict, we have clarity.

IATA Director-General Willie Walsh also welcomed the outcome: “The judge has understood that the Dutch government violated its obligations in shortcutting processes that would bring scrutiny to its desire to cut flight numbers at Schiphol. This decision gives vital stability for this year to the airlines using Schiphol airport and maintains the choice and connectivity passengers value.”

The threat remains

But as we said, the battle might have been won, the jury is very much out who wins the war. As Walsh rightfully points out: “But the job is not done. The threat of flight cuts at Schiphol remains very real and is still the stated policy of the government.

The reduction to 460.000 movements was intended as an interim step, part of an ‘experimental rule’. While that rule is now swept off the table by the Haarlem judge, a deeper cut remains on the horizon: that to 440.000 movements from November 2024. For that, the Dutch government has every intention to follow the Balanced Approach to make sure that its proposal is solid and should be able to stand in court the next time.

KLM, as the leading airline in the court case and the home-based carrier in Amsterdam, is confident that its strategy of fleet renewal will help it meet the targets of achieving less noise and CO2 emissions. “We will demonstrate this in the next phase of this case, the EU’s Balanced Approach procedure. This will investigate whether noise levels can be reduced around Schiphol using methods other than those envisaged by the ministry. The balanced approach is about the best way to reduce the number of people affected by aircraft noise. To this end, we would like to continue cooperating with the government, Schiphol, and any other relevant parties.

A Saudia Boeing 747-400F rolling out on Polderbaan at Schiphol. The airport’s interim CEO wants to ban the noisy type by 2026. (LVNL)

Lost partner

But whereas KLM will find supporters for its quest within the airline community, it seems to have lost a major partner in this battle just this week: Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. For over a century, Schiphol and KLM have been synonymous with growth and expansion of the global airline network. Not anymore.

Faced with the realities of a growing public and political debate and concerns over climate change, the environment, and the effects on communities, Schiphol’s interim CEO Ruud Sondag surprised a few on Monday night by presenting his eight-point plan to make his airport an eco-friendly neighbor. Sondag, who previously said that the capacity reduction to 460.000 was a necessary interim solution toward 440.000 movements, wants to introduce a stricter night curfew.

Amsterdam is one of the few major airports in Europe that is still open for traffic during the night, with 32.000 night flights allowed between 11.00 pm and 07.00 am. Sondag wants this changed to a night closure between 00.00 am and 05.00 am, with only arriving traffic allowed between 05.00 and 06.00 am. This will reduce the number of night flights by 10.000 and cut noise pollution to severely hindered citizens by 17.500 or 54 percent.

Sondag also wants to ban noisy aircraft, notably the Boeing 747-400Fs that are used for cargo flights late in the evening and during the night. And he wants to ban business aviation altogether, as their CO2 footprint per passenger is up to twenty times higher than that of a commercial airliner. Amsterdam Schiphol has to follow the principles of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Sondag said.

Trade-off

These are just proposals, although the Schiphol CEO wants them to be introduced in 2025-2026. They were welcomed by Greenpeace, which stated that sanity had finally started to prevail at Schiphol. And even the Dutch minister of Transport, Mark Harbers, welcomed that Schiphol is taking its social responsibility to protect communities.

Little surprise, the aviation sector was not impressed, especially as Sondag shared his proposals first with newspapers before informing the airlines. It is something that raises concerns with Willie Walsh: “Schiphol airport themselves yesterday announced night flight cuts without consultation. Airlines understand the importance of resolving issues such as noise. The Balanced Approach is the correct EU and global legally-enshrined process for managing noise impacts. It has helped airports around the world successfully address this issue.”

Not all airlines oppose the proposals made by Ruud Sondag. Steven van der Heijden, the CEO of Dutch/Turkish leisure airline Corendon, thinks the night curfew, and ban on noise jets, and business jets might be a necessary trade-off if the aviation sector wants to have support from the Dutch community and politics. Yes, the plans might affect his business plans, but maybe not too much.

“In the regulations for night flights, it has been written that one night flight is worth ten daily flights. So if Schiphol reduces the number of night flights by 10.000, it would mean that it has to offer airlines 100.000 daytime slots. It is my impression that this has been on the back of Schiphol’s mind when announcing the proposals. But keep in mind we still have a discussion about capacity here,” Van der Heijden told the Dutch website Luchtvaartnieuws.

Unstable politics

With the current unstable status of Dutch politics, it is no certainty that the current central-right government will remain in power, as it was dealt a heavy blow three weeks ago in provincial elections. But the alternative could be a government that wants to impose even stricter capacity cuts on Schiphol.

If the current government plays its cards right and abides with the EU’s Balanced Approach procedure, a reduction to 440.000 movements by the end of 2024 could very well become a reality. That could really affect KLM, its leisure airline Transavia, and also its partner Delta, who expressed its concerns to the Dutch government about the aviation policy on multiple occasions.

As Marnix Fruitema, Chair of the organization of airlines in The Netherlands BARIN said: “What is happening here now is a major concern to foreign airlines and countries. They look with amazement at The Netherlands and what is happening here. If they decide to move to somewhere else, this would really hurt our network capacity and will cost thousands of jobs.”

author avatar
Richard Schuurman
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016. Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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