Fuel prices are as much of a headache for KLM managing director elect Camiel Eurlings as for any of his peers. But the man who will head the Dutch flag carrier from the start of July is adding to this particular burden by burning some of the priciest brew he could put in the tanks on one his blue ribband runs, between Amsterdam Schiphol and New York's JFK.

In fact, the biofuel now being mixed in at a 20% blend is three to four times as dear as kerosene. Eurlings, however, is delighted to be opening the era of scheduled service on biofuels, which will help power flights KL641 to JFK and the return KL642 once a week for the next six months, before the cooking oil derived synthetic is shifted to another route.

If nothing else, Eurling's bet on biofuel has paid off in good publicity. On 9 March, the day after the first biofuel-powered 641 arrived at JFK, the New York Post hit the streets with the front-page screamer, "Frying High" - with a picture of KLM's "We fly biofuel"-liveried Boeing 777 and a big bottle of vegetable oil to drive the point home. Eurlings could not have asked for a more enthusiastic uptake of his push "to show people that it is possible to fly in a more sustainable way".

But Eurlings is after more than headlines. The cooking oil biofuel KLM is burning is "very energetic" and flies better than kerosene, he says, but what really counts is that "this step shows that KLM is a frontrunner in making air transportation more sustainable". Eurlings' message is that sustainability matters, because taking a responsible stance towards the environmental and social impact of KLM's operations is not merely the right thing to do; ultimately, it will translate into a sustainable, positive bottom line, if for no other reason than because integrating sustainability into a corporate business model is a way of tackling the risk associated with climate change.

It is hard, in the long run, to dispute the environmentalists' credo that without an environment there is no economy. But right now today, KLM is getting a fare premium from Nike, Philips, Heineken and a dozen other corporate customers who want to fly their employees on the biofuel flights, both because they can claim carbon offsets and "because they believe we can scale it up", says Eurlings. That is, these companies - presumably more will follow, and private flyers will be offered a similar option soon - want actively to participate in a pro-active effort to reduce the damage done by flying. As Eurlings points out, it's better to prevent environmental damage than to try to undo damage done "by planting a tree in Indonesia after you fly".

KLM is aware, also, that corporate sustainability has a habit of being an empty gesture rightly written off by alert environmentalists as "greenwashing". Hence Eurlings does not miss a chance to stress that the biofuel KLM is using is a "good" one, certified to the highest standard by the Washington DC-based Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels; it does not rob from food supply, does not pollute the water and results in a net 80% reduction in CO2 emissions.

But it is no available in large volumes, so Eurlings promises a development push to establish a large-scale alternative, possibly based on palm oil. Ultimately, he wants all KLM flights to fly on a biofuel mix.

The 8 March edition of KL641 also showed the value of KLM's work with Boeing to develop the airframer's "Wind Update" system. In testing for about a year now, Wind Update - known inside Boeing as "Mets", according to airspace programmes director Mike Caflisch - gathers up wind and weather data from several sources and, using algorithms that are refined with feedback from every flight, sends directly to an aircraft's flight management system instructions to alter course or altitude to optimise fuel burn. Caflisch says that changing altitude by just "a couple of hundred feet" can make a big difference to fuel burn. That claim seems justified on the experience of the KL641 8 March run, which came into JKF having burned about 1,000l less fuel than had been forecast based on the weather data that had been available before takeoff.

And, the exercise shows that relationships matter. Biofuel scheduled service is only happening because KLM, Amsterdam Schiphol and New York JFK airports, the Port Authority of New York and Boeing are all keen to see it through. KLM has also been working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Netherlands since 2007. And, the fuel is supplied by SkyNRG, a company KLM founded in 2009 with partners including North Sea petroleum company Argos. SkyNRG has teamed up with Epic Aviation in the USA to supply the fuel to JFK.

New York - which the Dutch are keen to recall, playfully, was once Nieuw Amsterdam - is an important friend to KLM and the Netherlands. As Eurlings likes to point out, KL641 first flew in 1946, opening the era of Europe-to-America scheduled air service. The fact that this flight, which has operated continuously ever since, should pioneer biofuel operations is meaningful to Eurlings; he clearly likes the symbolism - it shows that the Netherlands remains a driving, relevant, influential country in control of its own destiny, perhaps as long as it keeps its eye on the long-term and chooses its partners wisely.

That the New York Post - a cynical tabloid if ever there was one - would decide that just one of the thousands of flights to arrive at JFK warrants a front page splash is evidence enough that KLM matters, too.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news