New partners Etihad Airways and KLM see more co-operation to come after unveiling a new daily Abu Dhabi-Amsterdam connection, with the next step being around 30 additional codeshares.
Etihad will in May begin its Abu Dhabi-Amsterdam service - complementing KLM's existing daily flight - while the fledgling codeshare arrangement is being widened on both sides.
"Working with Air France-KLM gives us a chance to operate to a number of secondary cities we would never have operated to. If we didn't work with KLM, Amsterdam doesn't work for us," explained Etihad chief executive James Hogan during a press conference in Amsterdam on 15 January.
"We fly to the gateways, not the secondary cities. Amsterdam is a great hub and we can feed through the KLM network," he says.
Etihad is placing its code on KLM-operated connections to Aberdeen, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds/Bradford in the UK; Barcelona and Madrid in Spain; Bergen, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Helsinki and Stockholm in the Nordic countries; the French city of Nice; and Toronto in Canada. These add to five pre-existing codeshare routes in the UK and Scandinavia, which Etihad began after announcing its wide-ranging partnership with Air France-KLM and Air Berlin last October.
For its part, KLM had already secured improved access to Australia after codesharing with Etihad on five routes, including flights from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne and Sydney.
"We were very impressed with the traffic flows, if you look at how many travellers are flying to Australia," says KLM chief executive Peter Hartman. The next stage of co-operation includes flights to Baghdad, Basra and Erbil in Iraq; Calicut, Hyderabad, Chennai and Trivandrum in India; Dhaka in Bangladesh; Kathmandu in Nepal; Peshawar in Pakistan; Male in the Maldives; and the Seychelles - where Etihad has a partnership with Air Seychelles.
"We have far more possibilities now to India and Australia," says Hartman. "We were trying very hard for many years to find a strong partner in India. We were not very successful, but via Abu Dhabi and partnership with Etihad we are able to go for the Indian market.
"It's also possible to sell connections to Iraq. That is something we would never have been able to do on our own. For us [KLM] it was at the moment a bridge too far. Etihad knows the market very well and I think this is a great opportunity for us, because there is a lot of interest, not only out of the Dutch market, but also the surrounding areas in Scandinavia, Britain and Germany."
Hogan and Hartman repeatedly describe the partnership as the first phase of co-operation, without specifying the next stages. Hogan says there have been no discussions about Etihad taking equity stakes - as it did to anchor several other partnerships - and he insists SkyTeam membership is not on the agenda, despite Etihad's growing ties with some of the alliance's members. Etihad has just begun codesharing with upcoming SkyTeam carrier Garuda Indonesia, and it is also looking to deepen its links with Kenya Airways.
Hogan also reiterates that he sees no problem with Oneworld member Air Berlin being involved in the partnership between the SkyTeam members, as Oneworld has no competing carrier in the French or Dutch markets.
"Step-by-step we will develop it," says Hartman. "This is just the beginning. We started with a few routes. Be assured it will be widened. We started a few months ago with five [codeshares] beyond Europe and Abu Dhabi. Now we've added about 15 on both sides, but we can add another 40 in Europe alone. And if you include the United States there is far more [potential]."
Hogan adds: "This is a first phase. I have no doubt as we proceed the partnership will become stronger."