KLM CEO on China’s Rebound, Transatlantic Weakness, and Olympic Diversions

Have you been to Amsterdam? If so, there’s a good chance you’ve flown on a Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij plane without knowing it. The company, better known by its catchier acronym KLM, is the flag carrier of the Netherlands and the world’s oldest airline operating under its original name.

From its mega hub at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, it serves more than 170 global destinations with a fleet of distinctive bright blue aircraft. It’s a cornerstone of the SkyTeam alliance, and counts Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic among its key commercial partners.

But a proud history is no guarantee of future success. As recent challenges have graphically illustrated, KLM’s long-term relevance in an increasingly competitive industry cannot be taken for granted.

Thankfully, Marjan Rintel is no stranger to problem-solving. She spent 15 years in various operational and marketing positions across KLM before leaving to be President and CEO of Dutch Railways. She returned to the airline in 2022, taking on the CEO role from Pieter Elbers, who is now CEO of Indian low-cost carrier IndiGo.

In the latest of our Leaders of Travel: Skift C-Suite Series, we sit down with Rintel as she leads KLM into a busy summer season. 

A Very Important Summer

Skift: We’re speaking here at the start of June, with hopefully some good visibility for the coming season. How is this summer shaping up for KLM? 

Marjan Rintel: Bookings are still looking fine and stable. Around the world, there’s still not all the aircraft capacity in place, which is helping. For us, it’s most important that we are running well operationally. We have improved a lot after the first quarter, and the May holiday [peak] was very successful, so we’re looking forward to this summer.

Your airline is a critical component of the Air France-KLM Group. Are passengers shifting their flights through Amsterdam this summer to avoid the Paris Olympics?

What we’re currently seeing is that our outlook is not going up, but it’s not going down. But we do see a difference in Paris. They [passengers] are avoiding Paris because of the Olympics, but we still need to see if there’s any effect of shifting from Paris to Amsterdam. As we speak today, it’s still stable. 

A Fleet in Flux

We’ve seen operational problems with your new fleet of regional Embraer E2 jets. What’s the latest on their engine issues?

If it’s flying, the E2 is a brilliant plane. Customers love it, pilots love it. It’s really efficient, the product is great. The issue is with the engines, not the plane. There are [KLM] planes grounded, but it’s also not only KLM, it is many other airlines as well, including the Airbus A220s from Air France. But it will harm us for a period of time, that’s for sure.

We’re meeting with Pratt and Whitney, who make the engines, to see what’s coming up. We need to redo the engines, and that means Pratt and Whitney need to have enough capacity and spare products. We will receive their plans in a few weeks’ time, but I expect [the maintenance solutions] will take a few years. 

Long-Haul Capacity

Are you seeing any softness in bookings in the transatlantic market?

We saw in the months after the pandemic that the U.S. market really caught up, but there’s also now been a lot of capacity put in. Therefore the demand is a little less than what we were seeing before. At the same time, Asia is catching up and we’re particularly seeing more traffic towards Japan.

Some destinations in China are better than others, but there are no visa constraints anymore going to China, which is very helpful. Elsewhere, our Entebbe (Uganda) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) routes are proving very popular as well. As is the Caribbean; Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao are booming.

How is the long-haul outlook more broadly?

We need to add more capacity to our long-haul network. We’re still suffering from pilot constraints, therefore we’re still not at 100%. Firstly, we need to restore our pilot capacity, and therefore our long-haul capacity, and then we can start to make some choices. 

A Level Playing Field?

You mention strengthening demand to Asia. How frustrating is it that your airline needs to avoid Russian airspace when flying, for example, from Amsterdam to China, when many other global carriers don’t?

It’s not a level playing field. It takes another two hours for us, four cockpit crew, and of course, more fuel, which is not the cheapest today. It’s really frustrating and I think it’s harmful for relationships. We are in an international world and an international competition, so it’s very hard to have restrictions from Europe or Russia that are not valid for others. 

There’s been talk of regulatory intervention to block airlines flying into Europe or the U.S. from overflying Russian airspace en route. In principle, is this something you would support?

Yes, of course. 

Environmental Concerns

KLM has been in a high-profile dispute regarding noise and flight caps at your home airport at Amsterdam Schiphol. What’s your message to the authorities? 

I think it goes broader than only Schiphol, it’s the government too. The objective is to remove noise, so we need to look at efficient ways for us to be able to reduce that while keeping the positioning of KLM and the airline industry in the Netherlands as it is today.

It’s needed for welfare, for companies, and for the future of flying. We’ve already initiated our own plan, which is ‘more clean, more quiet, and more efficient’ – it sounds much nicer in Dutch! I think this shows that you don’t need a reduction in movements [the number of planes taking off and landing] if you want to achieve your objective.

Prior to rejoining KLM, you headed up the Dutch Railways. In Europe, there’s a lot of industry chatter about better integration of rail and air services. What’s your perspective on this? 

Before you think about true integration, you need to consider the infrastructure for the trains. If you want to take a train up to 500 or 600 kilometers [310-370 miles], you need faster trains. They don’t have to be high-speed, but at least speedy enough to make it more attractive for passengers to take the train instead of the plane.

The integration then can come through ticketing and systems, baggage handling, and seamless service for customers. But first of all, you need the infrastructure, and if that’s not there, it won’t happen at all.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Read more from our new Leaders of Travel: Skift C-Suite Series here.

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