Kevin O'Toole/LONDON

KLM IS TO START A NEW wave of growth in its European operations, outlining plans for a $300 million short-haul fleet expansion and a new agreement with its pilots' union, which paves the way for greater use of wet-lease and codesharing with regional partners.

KLM will buy two new Boeing 737-300s and take another seven 737-400s from its partner, Air UK, which has phased out the aircraft, to standardise its fleet. KLM already leases four of the aircraft from Air UK, in which it holds a 45% stake.

By early 1997, KLM will have increased its 737-400 fleet to 19 aircraft, with its 737-300 fleet growing to 17. In return, Air UK is to buy KLM Cityhopper's entire fleet of six Fokker 100s over the next few years. These will continue to be flown for KLM deal with its pilots, which sets down broad guidelines for operating such third-party and wet-lease arrangements.

KLM Cityhopper will take another seven Fokker 70s, being produced largely from stock parts by the bankrupt Dutch aircraft-maker. The aircraft, which will bring the fleet to ten, are to be delivered through to July 1997. Under the new agreement with the VNV pilots' union, the regional subsidiary will be allowed for the first time to operate into Category I airports.

KLM president Pieter Bouw admits that growth of the European network has been restrained over the past three years as the airline consolidated after the introduction of the pioneering wave system introduced at its Schiphol hub.

He says that the aim now is to expand passenger capacity at around 8% annually over the next two years, staying at 1-1.5% above average market growth.

Bouw confirms that KLM's long-term goal is 10-15% market share in Europe, but says that there is no urgency to expand unless the market shows greater signs of consolidating. KLM's existing share is put at 7-8%, including alliance and codeshare partners such as Air UK and Germany's Eurowings.

Sources within KLM play down stock-market speculation of a grand European merger, suggesting that the growth will probably come from smaller partnerships, such as those with Air UK or Eurowings.

Source: Flight International