The Dutch government’s controversial decision to reduce flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – from 500,000 today to 460,000 in November 2023 and 440,000 in November 2024 – increasingly looks like a moment of truth in the history of air travel and sustainability.
“The reason this feels significant to us is that it’s very, very rare, perhaps even unprecedented, for a government or other authority to reduce capacity at an airport,” says Cait Hewitt, policy director for environmental pressure group Aviation Environment Foundation.
For the managed travel sector, the planned cuts at Schiphol raise two profound questions. First, do corporate travel professionals believe carbon reduction targets can be met with or without reducing the number of aircraft in the sky? Second, how do travel managers feel about sustainability when, arguably for the first time, the consequences hurt their economic interests?
“One of the unpleasant consequences if capacity is reduced is that flying will become more expensive,” says Marnix Fruitema, chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives in the Netherlands. “Yields are going through the roof. The Unilevers and Shells can afford this but not if you are a small or medium enterprise.”
Dutch businesses will also be harmed if they find it harder to get where they need, Fruitema argues. “You may say it’s nice that they don’t fly but it’s a bit difficult to travel to Madrid by bicycle,” he says.
Travel management representatives are divided over this point, and whether capacity reduction is welcome. The Netherlands has two associations with travel manager membership. The managing director of one opposes the Schiphol cuts. The MD of the other supports them.
Odete Pimenta da Silva, MD of the buyer-led (in other words it also has allied supplier members, including airlines) Netherlands Association for Travel Management (NATM), believes reducing capacity is bad for her buyer members and bad for the Netherlands. “We are a trading country,” she says. “The government doesn’t realise the impact of cutting down on the number of flights and I think it doesn’t know what the impact is on the economy and how it might affect the hub network. Having fewer flights will increase the cost of travel because there will be a high demand but lower supply.”
Yet Stephanie Smook, managing director of of Cortas, an association exclusively for travel buyers of larger companies in the Netherlands, sees the matter very differently. “Our members are quite relaxed about it,” she says. “The number one priority of all our members is sustainability. In the past year flights have already been reduced for the purposes of operational efficiency [Schiphol has had well-documented struggles with chronic understaffing], so our corporates are already used to this and they are not against it because they see there needs to be less travel for sustainability reasons.”
Are Cortas members willing to accept poorer connectivity? “The shift for corporates has been going on for a long time,” says Smook. “After not being able to travel for two years and with the need to be more sustainable, they have already changed their behaviour. They have already looked at how to reduce flights, so what is happening now doesn’t impact them that much.
“It’s something that cannot be avoided. Everyone in the Netherlands knows the situation is not good. If the reduction forces us to use more trains, perfect. If it forces us to travel for more valid reasons, perfect.”
Supporters and opponents alike agree that the primary motive of the Dutch government in cutting capacity at Schiphol has been to improve the local environment for residents, especially noise pollution, rather than the global environment in terms of climate change.
Fruitema alleges noise assessments were conducted secretly by consultants using incorrect assumptions based on noise from older aircraft that are now retired and have been replaced with newer aircraft. Hewitt, on the other hand, says: “This is an airport with a history of breaches of its noise limits. When the airport got permission for its fifth runway, that came with a noise footprint condition which was not well adhered to.” The airport over-scheduled, she says, so the tighter limits are a correction.
Smook also supports capacity reduction to help residents. “The Netherlands is way too small to be this congested,” she says. “There is too much air and noise pollution. I can tell; I live here. Something needs to change. The corporates also want to change.”
Various airlines have joined forces to litigate against the capacity cuts and, separately, a campaign group has been formed. The airlines argue that the Dutch government has breached several laws and conventions by failing to consult adequately or take a “balanced approach” (a term with legally defined obligations) to achieving sustainability.
“There are many ways for airlines to do that, including changing to aircraft types that are bigger, quieter and more sustainable, but they didn’t even have that conversation,” says Pimenta da Silva.
NATM’s MD also argues that “if flying is going to be decreased, it has to be done everywhere,” not just the Netherlands. Fruitema agrees. “Where are the 60,000 movements [removed from Schiphol] going to?” he asks. “Will they disappear into thin air or are Qatar Airways and JetBue and British Airways going to fly to Frankfurt and Brussels instead? I’m not by definition against stabilisation of movements, but tackle it at a central level in Brussels [ie, the European Union].”
Hewitt rejects this argument, and that the aviation industry can be relied upon to develop non-polluting technology. Both the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change, she says, state net-zero measures can be “delivered at a national level, so there is a very clear role for individual governments to take responsibility for this issue and they effectively have a UN/ICAO mandate to do that.
“[Zero-emission] aircraft are not foreseen on the market for probably decades and yet we have less than 30 years to get down to close to zero emissions and manage the rest with carbon removals, which is another technology we don’t have yet. Therefore AEF would support efforts particularly of governments of countries with a big historical responsibility for having caused a lot of climate damage. We are the countries that should be taking action first on this issue,” Hewitt says.
Perhaps the most significant remark for travel managers to ponder comes from Fruitema, the aviation stalwart. Asked if there are too many aircraft in the sky for the good of the environment, he answers: “I don’t know what the definition of too much is other than what is based on supply and demand. I think it is really good that companies have reflected on whether they need to travel or can do it via Zoom. If it helps the climate, even better. But on the other hand I very much believe in the principles of supply and demand. If you want to regulate that, I don’t know the way forward.”
Effectively, Fruitema is endorsing the primacy of economics, just at a moment when the travel management community is deciding whether sustainability should take precedence instead. Yet the Schiphol capacity cuts are also about supply and demand, albeit from a sustainability perspective. Until now, attempts to reduce flying for environmental reasons have been voluntary and on the demand side. The Schiphol capacity cuts are an inflection point where, for the first time, volume reduction to reduce carbon emissions is being made compulsorily on the supply side.