Airline boss wants you to take the train

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Dutch airline KLM would love to fly far fewer people on the short hop between Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and Brussels — it’s even buying them train tickets.

“If there are connections, if the connections are good, if they arrive at Schiphol, if they run also in the weekends, we are more than willing to stop flying to Brussels,” CEO Marjan Rintel told POLITICO, adding: “We are moving our customers from plane to train.”

She is acting because airlines are under fierce pressure to cut their carbon footprints — and first in the firing line are short flights that could be replaced by much cleaner rail. KLM faces the additional problem that Schiphol is hitting its maximum capacity for flights, and the government is trying to limit the number of takeoffs and landings to reduce noise pollution.

“It’s scandalous that in a time of the climate emergency we still have these extra routes,” said Victor Thévenet, from green group Transport & Environment. “These flights [between Brussels and Amsterdam] have a climate impact that is 14 times higher than the train.”

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Rintel’s approach dovetails with that of the European Commission, which is setting an aspirational goal of making sure journeys of less than 500 kilometers are CO2-neutral by 2030.

For the KLM boss, who is a former state railway CEO, that means trains instead of planes on the 200-kilometer run between the Dutch and Belgian airports, a flight that takes 55 minutes but also a comparatively competitive 100 minutes by high-speed train from city center to city center.

Grounding flights

But a big problem in scrapping the four daily flights between Schiphol and Brussels is that the rail alternative isn’t up to scratch, with a particular problem being early morning and weekend trains.

“We need to solve a few bottlenecks before we can really implement it,” said Rintel, adding she wants that to happen the “sooner the better.”

As part of efforts to fly less, KLM has bought blocks of seats on the high-speed Thalys train.

It’s not just the Dutch carrier looking to put fewer bums in seats. Germany’s Lufthansa has long teamed up with state railway Deutsche Bahn to shift passengers from its giant Frankfurt hub onto trains rather than connecting flights. KLM’s sister airline Air France has done the same with SNCF.

France even passed legislation last year banning short-haul domestic flights if there’s an alternative rail connection of two-and-a-half hours or less, but the law has so many loopholes that only three routes are affected.

While the Dutch government is committed to boosting passenger rail traffic on routes to Brussels, Paris, London, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Berlin, and is even subsidizing night train connections, the KLM chief is against short-haul flights bans like the French one.

KLM is against banning short-haul flights | Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s too easy to say ‘let’s ban it’ and not have trains in place,” Rintel said. “Then people go by car and that’s even worse.”

Rintel is also looking at the connection to Berlin, which currently takes six hours and 40 minutes by train. Track infrastructure upgrades on both sides of the border could eventually cut the train journey to four hours, becoming more competitive with the 75-minute flight.

But cutting back on short-haul flights isn’t without hiccups.

Efforts to shift traffic on the route from London to Amsterdam to the Eurostar train is under threat as station construction work in the Dutch city means those trains will likely have to be suspended for a year starting June 2024.

As part of efforts to make traveling by rail more attractive, the Commission is mulling making it easier for travelers to compare and book train journeys by forcing operators to share their data with other travel platforms — an initiative called the Multimodal Digital Mobility Services.

But in recent weeks the EU executive’s plans have come under fire from industry groups and lawmakers, who fear the proposal won’t do enough to enough to ease online ticketing.

Rintel also said ticketing systems aren’t up to scratch to support a switch to rail. While flights have always been international, trains were “traditionally for the country, and by the country,” she said, something that has to change if alternatives to flying are to become more attractive.

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