Impact of Capacity Cuts at Amsterdam Schiphol for KLM

In light of an upcoming capacity cut at Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS), KLM (KL) has expressed frustration and, more surprisingly, bewilderment.



July 29, 2022

DALLAS - As the dust settles following the Dutch government's decision to limit capacity at Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) from November 2023, resident carrier KLM (KL) has expressed frustration and, more surprisingly, bewilderment. The Dutch carrier claims in a press release that it is "surprised by the government's sudden resolve to substantially cut back operations at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol." As it looks to the future, the carrier has painted a bleak picture and described the proposed cuts as, "major."

Let's take a moment to decipher the data and determine how drastic this cap will really be for the flag carrier. The proposed constraint will limit annual movements at the hub to 440,000 per year. KL, on the other hand, shows that the government previously projected a foreseeable annual movement tally of 540,000.

While this represents a difference of 100,000 movements or a 20% decrease from projected capacity, let us pause for a moment to consider the level of activity at AMS prior to the pandemic. After all, it will bear a closer representation to the actual capacity reduction, rather than drawing similarities to future forecasts.

According to historical data from the airport operator, aircraft movements at the facility were close to 500,000 in both 2018 and 2019. This figure excludes general aviation activity, which accounted for only about 3% of total movements. Thus, the capped figure published by the government amounts to a 60,000 drop in movements compared to what existed at the hub, prior to the pandemic.

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KLM Cityhopper PH-EXU Embraer 175STD. Photo: Fabrizio Spicuglia/Airways

Fleet Surplus

Now, let us focus on the impact on the airline. Based on the airport operator's historical data, KL accounts for roughly half of all movements at AMS. The IATA definition of a movement is a single takeoff or landing, but considering inbound and outbound movements as a single rotation, makes quantification easier.

Therefore, the 60,000 excess movements correspond to a surplus of 30,000 aircraft rotations. Given that KL normally operates half of all flights at AMS, it can be inferred that the airline will have to cut 15,000 rotations out of its timetable.

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As with any transit hub, the key to success is to get as many passengers in and connect through the airport to outbound flights, as possible. If movements must be restricted, it is reasonable to assume that flights operated by smaller aircraft are more vulnerable, as indicated by the carrier's press release.

KLM under its Cityhopper subsidiary, operates a mix of Embraer types on thinner routes throughout Europe, connecting AMS to secondary cities such as Aberdeen (ABZ) in the UK and Gdańsk (GDN) in Poland. These smaller markets are most vulnerable to service reductions, and it is not impossible that the KLM brand may disappear altogether on some routes.

Above all, the most important metric is determining the potential number of excess aircraft in the entire KL fleet. 15,000 rotations divided into a daily quota equals 40 excess daily aircraft rotations. According to publicly available flight tracking data, a KL narrow body is usually assigned three rotations into and out of AMS per day. This is an average and could be higher or lower, but it is a good place to start.

While the number of rotations could be increased in some cases, choosing a lower number allows us to be more conservative in our outlook. The result is a fleet surplus of approximately a dozen aircraft. This roughly represents around 20% of the KLM Cityhopper fleet or approximately 7% of the entire KLM fleet.

Overview of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Bram Steeman Steeman • CC BY-SA 2.0

Network Consolidation

Cynics may argue that using fine mathematics like this, so soon, could be pointless. But it does, in the broadest sense, indicate that any armageddon scenario that KL chooses to paint is perhaps not so bleak in reality. Whilst schedule reductions and a loss of service to some destinations can never be sugar-coated, a single-digit fleet surplus in percentage terms, does not correlate with a network contraction being termed as "major."

KL operates one of Europe's most extensive networks, with destinations sometimes separated by distances that can be easily covered by rail. The link from Amsterdam to Brussels is a prime example. Because this route is so short, the time spent taxiing on the ground can be as long as, if not longer than, the flight time.

With sustainability as the watchword these days, the Dutch legacy carrier could emerge triumphantly from any network consolidation if it chooses to embrace intermodal surface connectivity. After collecting their checked luggage, passengers can be on the trackside in less than five minutes at AMS's large railway station located beneath the airport.

The inadequacy of the proposed methods for monitoring and distributing aircraft noise in the surrounding neighborhoods is also emphasized in KL's press release. According to the airline's update, the old noise measurement system, which is based on a network of measuring points, will be re-implemented. Once the total noise limit for a runway’s associated measuring points has been reached, an alternative runway will need to be put into use.

This technique will distribute noise evenly throughout the surrounding area. Notwithstanding, however, the airline notes a glaring omission. Such methodology does not take into account the surrounding population density. As a consequence, runways that have more people living near the associated flight path could be used more frequently than before.

Runways 09/27 and 18C/36C are cited as examples, which are known locally as the Buitenveldertbaan and Zwanenburgbaan, respectively. KL claims that "Even with fewer aircraft movements, more people living in the vicinity of Amsterdam will suffer from noise nuisance. This is, of course, totally illogical."

Terminal Entrance Photo: Wikimedia Commons Amin • CC BY-SA 4.0

Misguided Efforts?

Efforts by the government to reduce the environmental impact appear to be somewhat misguided. In certain weather conditions, parallel runways at AMS can be used for simultaneous landings. Aircraft flying in opposite directions are merged onto parallel approach paths. To maintain separation when aircraft are landing in a southerly direction, air traffic controllers use altitude differences of at least 1000 feet until the aircraft are aligned with the landing runway.

Aircraft approaching from the west are frequently required to descend to as low as 2000 feet, at a point which is much sooner than the optimal descent path necessitates based on efficiency. While this maintains separation from aircraft approaching from the east at 3000 feet, aircraft that descend earlier than necessary cause more noise and engine pollution to be dispersed above the surrounding neighborhoods.

Perhaps opportunities exist for the Dutch government to collaborate with LVNL, the Dutch provider of air navigation services, to facilitate studies to explore more optimal decent profiles. A redesign of arrival routes could yield tangible benefits that would have an impact not only on the environment but also on the ears of the local residents.

KLM PH-BHF Boeing 787-9 Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways

Routes at risk

KLM has reason to be disappointed by the proposed cap on flights from their home base. What is abundantly clear is that the Dutch government has avoided taking a comprehensive approach to addressing ways to reduce aviation's environmental footprint. Furthermore, the heavy-handed approach is a sign that those behind the decision, have not collaborated with the aviation sector.

At least in Europe, there appears to be some room for schedule consolidation while still accommodating passengers who may not be able to fly from their preferred airport. The airline's UK network will be of particular interest, dating back to destinations served by Air UK before it became a wholly owned subsidiary of KLM. There is some network overlap here, with some destinations close together, such as Newcastle (NCL) and Teeside (MME), which are only an hour apart by car.

Situations like this, as well as destinations close to AMS, will almost certainly be on the radar of KLM's schedule planners. Above all, one hopes that any cuts, if necessary, do not have the unintended consequence of requiring job losses. Especially when it is clear that there is significant scope for alternative means for reducing the impact on the environment, which the Dutch government has clearly overlooked.


Featured Image: KLM PH-BVA Boeing 777-300ER Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways