KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Looks to Lead the Industry Toward Climate-Minded Travel on Its 100th Birthday

The oldest airline in existence, KLM is building the world's largest biofuel plant in the Netherlands while also working closely with the Dutch university TU Delft to develop a new kind of sustainable aircraft.
October 12, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC
A rendering of the Flying-V aircraft.
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Upon reaching a centennial milestone, it’s only natural that a heritage brand would venture down memory lane to pay homage to its achievements. But in celebrating its 100th anniversary earlier this week in Amsterdam, the chief executive officer of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines devoted significant attention to the future.

Faced with tough competition, existential concerns about the planet’s survival, and a perpetual need to innovate, CEO Pieter Elbers admitted that “looking back is nice, but looking forward is certainly more relevant.”

KLM’s first Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner arrives in Amsterdam to celebrate the airline’s 100th anniversary.

While the airline has earned a reputation for leading the charge in digital transformation—from adopting biometrics at boarding to experimenting with blockchain technology to facilitate exchanges with customers and partners—its ambition for the years to come is to double down on its leadership in sustainable innovation.

Part of what has earned the company a top-three spot on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the past 15 years is its commitment to fostering broad change in the industry. That began in 2009 with the development of sustainable alternatives to kerosene-type jet fuels and quickly followed in 2011 with a scheduled commercial flight on biofuel—the world’s first airline to do so.

A DC-8 at Amsterdam Schiphol airport in 1965.

Today the company uses 57 times more biofuel per flight than in 2011, reducing carbon emissions by up to 85%. In 2018 alone, KLM’s carbon-offset program CO2ZERO has allowed 90,000 passengers to compensate for the impact—about 40,000 tons of CO2—by supporting reforestation initiatives in Panama.

On the aircraft itself, the company hopes that by producing less waste through the use of more recyclable elements in catering and repurposing materials, like old uniforms, to generate limited-edition products or refurbish areas of the aircraft, it will reach its goal of reducing residual waste by 50% by 2030. Much of the airline’s plastic byproducts have been recycled and reused for 3D printing materials, such as tools for aircraft maintenance.

A DC-9 on the tarmac in 1967.

While those are significant efforts, Elbers knows they aren’t enough. “We’re investing in biofuel, but supply is limited. Rather than complain about that, we’re taking action and building our own plant with SkyNRG in the Netherlands,” he explains, adding that the plant will be the world’s largest when it is completed in 2022.

And while he insists on pursuing carbon offsets, treated as a cure-all by most airlines today, Elbers recognizes it’s effectively a Band-Aid to an ever-mushrooming, man-made problem. “What I don’t like in the sustainability debate is the divergence of viewpoints rather than a convergence of solutions,” Elbers says. “Until we can solve the problem at the source, we should be doing whatever we can to offset the impact.”

A Convair 240 at Schiphol in 1954.

Even if that ultimately means encouraging people to fly less or differently? With “Fly Responsibly,” KLM’s latest sustainability initiative, it appears so. “Do you always have to meet face-to-face? Can you take a train instead?” the narrator of the brand’s campaign video asks. The brand isn’t shying away from aviation’s role in the climate crisis—the industry accounts for about 2.5% of global emissions, and current reports estimate that air travel will grow by nearly 5% annually up to 2034. Short of a radical shrinking of the industry itself, change has to come where it can.

For KLM, that’s a short- and long-term game. Beginning in March 2020, one daily flight between Amsterdam and Brussels will be replaced with seats on the Thalys high-speed train, with other route substitutes currently being explored.

The KLM cabin crew on the steps of a Lockheed L-749 Constellation in 1950.

And projecting the company beyond its 2030 goals, Pieter Elbers has led KLM toward the future of sustainable aircraft design by helping to fund TU Delft’s research into the Flying-V, an aerodynamic, fuel-efficient concept that would integrate passenger seats and cargo into the wings of the plane and use 20% less fuel than a current Airbus A350. Key to the project? Younger students.

“Working alongside the younger generation is an incredibly powerful force for moving forward,” Elbers said. “Attracting and engaging with that talent pool is one way we can innovate and survive.”

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