KLM UK Engineering delivers Norwich quit threat

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Dutch carrier KLM's engineering operation has warned that it will have no choice but to quit Norwich airport if the local authority rejects a planning application for the installation of engine test facilities at the site.

The airport operator has proposed a £1.2 million investment to add new capabilities at the location, but objections from local campaigners have slowed the approval process.

KLM UK Engineering performs airframe heavy maintenance on Boeing 737s, BAe 146s and Fokker regional jets at Norwich, but as the latter types exit the KLM fleet, it is seeking a way to mitigate the fall in work through the addition of engine repair services.

KLM UK Engineering managing director Paul Chün has already voiced a threat in the local media to leave the airport if the plans are not approved. And Henri Hourcade, Air France-KLM general manager UK and Ireland, is unequivocal: rejection would leave it with no alternative but to vacate Norwich.

"We are all concerned," he says. "It is a tiny part of the business where we have to test the engines, but you can't avoid it. If you cannot do it then it's over.

"I am confident, knowing the importance of KLM [UK Engineering] to the region, the right decision will be taken."

However, Hourcade says the airport remains a key part of its UK business for its KLM Cityhopper regional operation. It recently announced the addition of a fourth daily flight to Amsterdam Schiphol from Norwich as it looks to tap into the high-yield business market.

KLM says the increase reflects one of the highest load factors across its UK network, now running at 73.3%, and a 4% year-on-year rise in forward bookings on the route to Schiphol.

"More than ever, the Norwich region is strategically important to our services out of the UK," says Hourcade.

"The timings are designed to dovetail with the timings of the international network. The new frequency also offers more choice to business travellers wanting a return trip from Amsterdam on the same day."

KLM will announce later this year a new departure point in the UK, with Kent airports Manston and Lydd both thought to be in the running.

But for the moment, the airline remains confident it can increase the number of passengers using its Norwich services from the 120,000 that did so last year. It believes a 33% increase on the back of the new service, which starts in April 2013, may even be possible.

"In Europe we want to have as many regional points as possible, serving a long-haul network to where the emerging growth is," Hourcade says. "We have the infrastructure in Schiphol and the connections to go with that growth."