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Wednesday, 8 April 2015

“Has it been thoroughly thought over? Or was it a management decision?” Dutch airliner KLM tries to lure customers from the East of The Netherlands with free bus trips to Schiphol

The Netherlands is a small country with great ambitions regarding aviation, as an important future driver for service jobs and prosperity.

Schiphol Amsterdam acts as the country’s primary airport, while Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Groningen, Maastricht and (soon) Lelystad Airport function as secondary airports, which are mainly used by travellers of charter companies and pricefighters (Ryanair) and as back-up airports for overflow purposes. 
Although these airports do all offer some kind of competition for Schiphol 
airport, it are all birds of the same feather and therefore not a real threat for the leading position of Schiphol 

Especially Schiphol is zealously driven by the ambition to become one of Europe’s leading airports – perhaps only trailing Heathrow London and Orly Paris – with a designated 75 million travellers per year in the not-to-distant future. It wants to reach this goal by becoming one of the most important hubs for international transit flights in the world.

However, in order to achieve this ambition, it is necessary to outperform Dubai International Airport and the planned megalomaniac airport in Istanbul, Turkey, in quality of service and handling speed. Especially the Turkish airport, which should host 150 million passengers per year eventually (now 55 million passengers per year) might prove to be fierce competition for Schiphol in the future.

To be frank, I think that the ambitions of Schiphol are the results of both wishful thinking and unrestrained ambition, without a clear sense of reality.

As a hub for transit flights, I think that Dubai and Istanbul will be quite hard to beat for Schiphol. Both countries lie much closer to the Equator than Amsterdam and consequently form a more natural gateway to the centre of Europe and almost the whole United States, Latin America and even Canada than Schiphol does. 

On top of that, both airports are seen as crown jewels of their country’s ambitious and proud – or should it be called vain(?)  leaders. This will probably enable nearly limitless budgets and a much higher tolerance for future losses than Schiphol has.

Perhaps even more important for the future of airport Schiphol, however, is the continuously looming risk, that the management of the binational airline combination Air France-KLM  scraps Schiphol as one of the two main hubs for this airliner under jeopardy: Air France is the biggest ‘partner’ by far and therefore calls the shots in practice. And Air France’s hub of choice would be Orly, Paris of course.

It is certain that, when nostalgia, nationalistic arguments and political pressure are left out of the equasion, it is much more efficient for Air France-KLM to reside at Orly, Paris alone. 

For the next few years, this plan will probably still be vetoed by Dutch and French politicians, for the sake of peace and tranquility. However, when the financial problems keep on mounting, the pressure on the Air France-KLM management and French politicians will increase to enforce this important decision after all.

That would be a devastating blow for both Schiphol AND the Dutch KLM, as this airliner is by far the most important inhabitant of Schiphol. When this particular scheme plays out, KLM would actually be assimilated by Air France and Schiphol would become a margin player, with an uncertain future.

Yet, there is more: in a radius of less than 70 km’s from the Dutch German border near Arnhem and Nijmegen, there are two successful international airports in Germany, which do pose a threat to the success of Schiphol, as leading airport: Düsseldorf and Weeze airport.

The latter is a typical no-nonsense, low-budget airport. It could be unflatteringly summarized as “a box and an airstrip in the middle of nowhere”. For this particular reason it is host to price-crusher Ryanair, which lures the frugal consumers, who are looking for near-zero ticket prices to various European destinations.

Düsseldorf – which I have used very frequently as a traveller to Russia - is a full service, mid-sized regional airport, with a host of interesting, international destinations, very competitive ticket prices, lightning fast service and a nearly total absence of queues. However, it does not offer the ‘pomp and circumstance’ and the massive size, which makes Schiphol so attractive in the eyes of many travellers and so dreadful to these very eyes.

All in all, both airports have been very successful in not only attracting German travellers from the Ruhr-gebiet – the large industrial zone in the West-German federational country Nordrhein-Westfalen – and far beyond, but also massive amounts of Dutch passengers from the provinces Overijssel, Gelderland, Noord-Brabant and Northern Limburg. For these passengers both airports are (much) closer and more convenient and comfortable than Schiphol.

Card of The Netherlands, with Weeze, Düsseldorf
and Schiphol marked
Map courtesy of Google Maps
Click to enlarge
Even for me  as someone who lives less than 45 minutes from Schiphol  the low ticket prices, the extremely short queues and the full service, but no-nonsense approach of Düsseldorf are therefore by far favorite above the queue time, fun fair, parking and shopping extravaganza, which is Schiphol.

All the aforementioned circumstances might explain why KLM is making the impression of a cornered cat off late. 

Yesterday, a good example of this behaviour was displayed: in order to increase its number of passengers and lift the results, KLM is planning to lure people from the (South-) Eastern parts of The Netherlands away from Weeze and Düsseldorf towards Schiphol, by offering free touring car-rides to the airport.

Daily newspaper De Telegraaf published this:

KLM opens the attack upon the German airports Weeze and Düsseldorf, by offering passengers from Arnhem and Nijmegen to transfer them to Schiphol airport by touring car for free. 

With the free bus ride, the company hopes to lure more travellers from Gelderland and Northern-Limburg into flying via Schiphol. During the last few years, KLM has endured a lot of competition from the German airports.  

Suffice it to say that this plan is dead on arrival, in my humble opinion.

It is an expensive plan, as KLM must pay for the busses and the drivers. These expenses must be earned back: either through a lesser margin or through higher ticket prices, for which the other passengers of KLM must foot the bill; something which they probably won’t do in this extremely competitive market for air tickets!

On top of that, it is just as inconvenient for the travellers from the Eastern provinces of The Netherlands as travelling to Schiphol by car themselves: they probably have to assemble at a parking lot in the middle of nowhere, in order to hop in the bus. When they miss this bus, they are in deep trouble.

Besides that, it does not change anything about the drawbacks of Schiphol:

  • It is just as far away as before for the passengers from Arnhem, Nijmegen and Eindhoven and due to the longer travelling time of the touring car, they have to leave home even earlier;
  • The ticket prices and all additional expenses at Schiphol will remain significantly higher than at Weeze or Düsseldorf airport;
  • The queues for the luggage and check-in counters and customs and the waiting time for the luggage belts will remain significantly longer than in Weeze and Düsseldorf;
  • People, who dislike Schiphol for what it is, will not suddenly start to like it, just for the reason of a simple, free bus ride.
The blind spot of both KLM and Schiphol with respect to this plan is, that they probably see themselves as one of the very best airliners and airports in the world. Consequently, they have the idea that everybody cannot help, but like them and travel with them, when they can. In such a case, they hope to push over the few, unloyal passengers with the free bus ride.

I think, however, that many passengers not only travel via Weeze or Düsseldorf, because it is much closer, but also for all the other reasons I mentioned. Can I be wrong? I can be wrong! But I think I'm right! 

Therefore I have to end this article with this funny, Dutch expression: “Has this plan been thoroughly thought over? Or was it a management decision?”

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