Travel recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is uneven as nations vary in their progress vaccinating against the disease yet stagnant demand in some regions may be offset by returning demand in others, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines chief executive Pieter Elbers predicts.

International travel is uncertain amid the restrictions set by different nations aimed at halting the spread of Covid-19 yet government co-operation can accelerate recovery, Elbers said on 8 June during a virtual discussion hosted by the International Aviation Club of Washington DC.


Source: KLM

KLM chief executive Pieter Elbers

The latest forecast by air traffic manager Eurocontrol states that air travel in Europe “is not expected to reach 2019 levels until 2024 at the earliest”, which makes Elbers sceptical.

“I would have difficulty saying it’s going to take years,” Elbers says of international recovery, adding that “there are going to be some specific parts that will take longer”.

“I would see no reason why Europe and India would take four years to come back,” he says of that international route network.

The first priority should be to reopen travel between the European Union and the USA, he says, and then “other nations will follow”.

The USA and EU can “support the travellers who are willing to start travelling again” by agreeing on a unified set of vaccine passports or other standard that governments would recognise to enable recovery of transatlantic travel, he says.

A revival of transatlantic travel could inspire other nations to unravel what he calls a “patchwork” of restrictions.

KLM has firm orders for 10 Boeing 787-10 aircraft to boost its current fleet of 109 aircraft in service, Cirium fleets data shows. The flag carrier is phasing out its Airbus A330 aircraft. Its 777 and 787 jets will be “the foundation” of its long-haul flights, Elbers says.

KLM’s low-cost subsidiary Transavia generates 10% of the flag carrier’s business, with another 10% generated by its cargo operations.

Air freight became increasingly important for KLM during the pandemic as the worldwide grounding of passenger aircraft led to a plunge in air freight capacity, creating more demand for cargo flights on KLM’s 747 and 777 aircraft.

Low-cost carriers have also become increasingly important during the pandemic, Elbers says, making Transavia a more significant part of KLM’s future. During the pandemic in Europe low-cost carriers “Wizz Air and Ryanair have emerged even bigger” and increased their market share in the region compared with 2019, he says, while Transavia has expanded its operations in France.

“We are very well positioned but we cannot rest on our laurels” he says, adding that competition from LCCs will be “a very strong force to reckon with” even as the Covid-19 crisis eventually wanes.

Leisure travel is leading the recovery, so Elbers says KLM has reopened routes in Southern Europe for the summer travel season and has flights planned to Orlando during the winter season. The KLM executive is sceptical about predictions that business travel may never recover to 2019 levels and expects “incremental month-to-month recovery” by the end of 2021.

“For sure in 2022, there are going to be budget discussions for companies” about how much they want to resume business travel, he says.

Continuing his theory that an uneven recovery will balance out, he says “probably one segment of business travel will remain low but another will recover”.

Digital video chats have become more widely used during the pandemic but he says “I don’t think it will massively replace travel”.