KLM sacrifices seats to upgrade short-haul business

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Dutch carrier KLM is to block out the middle seat in business class as part of a revamp of its short-haul European premium product this summer.

The middle seat in its short-haul business product will no longer be sold on its Boeing 737 and Fokker 70/100 fleet as the SkyTeam carrier aims to improve passenger comfort onboard by offering expanded personal space. Seating arrangements on its new Embraer 190s will remain unchanged.

The move is part of a revamp of its short-haul product, under which it is rebranding its premium cabin from KLM Europe Select to KLM Europe Business Class, and also includes a renewal of its catering product and its priority service package on the ground.

Speaking at a press conference in Amsterdam detailing the revamp, KLM executive vice-president commercial Erik Varwijk said the carrier will leave the middle seat empty in business class on its six-abreast Boeing 737s.

"We will change it to get a four-abreast product. There will be a huge step forward in comfort," he says. The Fokker 70/100s operated by KLM Cityhopper will similarly move from a 5-abreast configuration to three seats abreast in business class.

Ironically the carrier once operated its Boeing 737s in a five-abreast configuration in business class. "We used to have five abreast on the 737s, but it was abolished after 9/11 when we felt many [business passengers] were focusing on price," he adds. "The fact we are moving back to four-abreast reflects further our analysis of the market. We think there is a distinct need for personal space [in business]."

The move is also driven by a desire to tie the short-haul premium product in to that of its long-haul services for connecting passengers. "As we try to improve the business class product on long-haul, we felt we should also do it on short-haul business class," says Varwijk.

The exact configuration in the new business class will continue to be flexibly managed depending on the flight, but the carrier estimates it will offer roughly 3% fewer seats through the initiative - although its overall capacity both in flight and seat terms will increase this summer. KLM capacity by flights will be 10% higher this summer, though seats offered will only be increased 4.5% because of the revamped business class and the increased mix of the smaller Embraer 190s in its fleet.

KLM will also this summer complete the phasing out of its remaining Boeing 737-300/400s, moving to all next-generation 737s.