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Leon Kaye headshot

KLM Brings Sustainability and Customer Care to 30,000 Feet

By Leon Kaye

With over 35 million passengers flown and revenues soaring over $11 billion last year, the Dutch national air carrier KLM is one of the world’s most vital international air carriers. The 98-year-old airline benefits from the ease at which one can transfer at Amsterdam’s international airport; talk to a Brit in the know, and he or she may tell you it’s often easier to hop on a plane to Amsterdam to fly abroad instead of dealing with one of London’s airports.

But KLM’s 100-plus total fleet exacts a sizeable carbon footprint on the planet. To that end, the airline says its staff is determined to do whatever it can to mitigate its carbon emissions, and will leverage any solution available to ensure its fleet operates as sustainably and efficiently as possible. TriplePundit recently sat down with members of KLM’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) and social media teams to learn about both the airline’s recent successes and future challenges. The airline also shared examples of how what it says is its culture innovation is key to improving the company’s performance on the ground, as well as to improve communications with its customers.

As is the case with any airline, the largest challenge this sector faces are those pesky carbon emissions. Like many air carriers, KLM has tinkered with algae-based biofuels, but those efforts never materialized. For a while, the airline operated a JFK-Amsterdam flight fueled in part by recycled cooking oil; currently KLM sources biofuels from SkyNRG for a Los Angeles-Amsterdam trek.

But as explained by two KLM corporate responsibility representatives, Fokko Kroesen and Esmée van Veen, during 3p’s visit to Amsterdam last week, the airline is scouring through entire operations in order to find ways to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions 20 percent per passenger from 2011 levels by 2020. Those efforts are necessary as at best, as biofuel blends can only help reduce the carrier’s carbon emissions by 1 percent.

A more efficient fleet, improved operational efficiency across all of KLM and carbon offsetting are some wasys by which KLM can approach that 20 percent emissions reduction goal for 2020. The airline’s investment in the Boeing 787-9, or Dreamliner, uses 40 percent less fuel than comparable planes. But regardless of the model or age of its aircraft, Kroesen and van Veen repeatedly gave examples of how KLM leaves no stone unturned in finding ways to chip away at emissions. The washing of planes’ engines, for example, can help planes fly more efficiently and reduce the company’s emissions by as much as 0.8 percent (and yes, that water is captured and reused).

Other little steps can contribute to KLM's environmental goals. The airline is phasing out hauling newspapers on its flights – passengers instead are increasingly directed to read their favorite daily via a KLM app on their electronic devices. Fewer newspapers also means less waste – important to the company as it has a goal to slash its landfill waste 50 percent from 2011 levels by 2025.

Lightweight nets used to pin down cargo also offer small but not insignificant fuel savings. Tabulate all those reductions, and KLM says it has conserved almost 1.6 million gallons of jet fuel last year – or the equivalent energy consumption of 1,900 Dutch households.

Another way in which KLM strives to reduce its emissions is through carbon offsets. The company’s CO2ZERO program offers passengers an option to compensate for their emissions by offering what KLM says is a seamless, effective and reasonably priced way to fly carbon-neutral. When 3p challenged the airline’s CSR representatives on whether this was really effective in mitigating KLM’s economic impact, they replied that various offset programs, such as more sustainable cookstoves in emerging economies, were vetted by WWF’s Gold Standard offset certification program.

While fuel will always be the top priority of any transportation service seeking to reduce its environmental footprint, KLM insists its responsibility agenda has positioned the airline as a leader within the global aviation sector. The company has made changes on its menus so that inflight catering is more responsible. Many of KLM’s onboard meals contain organic or sustainably sourced ingredients. Coffee served onboard is certified by the fair trade organization UTZ (which recently announced its merger with Rainforest Alliance). Foodies can be assured the chocolate given onboard is fair trade-certified; if one happens to be in business class, those sweets can be paired with organic wines KLM has added to its beverage choices.

While KLM’s shift to fair trade-certified products can generate impact in communities far from its hub in Amsterdam, the airline also works with international organizations to enact change across the globe. KLM is a signatory to the United Nation’s Global Compact initiative, and has also worked to engage its employees to volunteer for organizations including UNICEF.

Those same employees are also encouraged to share their ideas with the airline in order to help the company become more efficient and sustainable. Processes that may seem benign to passengers, such as new boarding procedures, can help the airline operate more effectively and reduce times taxing on the runway or consuming power while grounded - which in the end can help KLM chip away at its carbon emissions. At its hub at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, the company has an “X-Gate” program, at which “new ideas and sustainable innovations,” in the words of KLM’s CSR team, can be tested.

In the end, finding new ways to get passengers on and off planes quickly and safely is just one way to improve the customer experience. Various KLM leaders who spoke to 3p constantly repeated the refrain that its customers are central to its drive to become company both responsible and responsive. The airline really has no choice – Europe’s aviation sector, long before Southwest and JetBlue jolted the travel industry across the pond in the U.S., has long been hyper-competitive thanks to the likes of RyanAir and easyJet; low-cost newbies such as Norwegian Airlines and Spain’s Level are further disrupting the aviation sector. With countless options for booking flights, as well as the various media channels by which passengers can share their concerns and complaints, KLM must be nimble in order to not only retain their customers, but to keep them happy and feel as if they are listened to: without them, there is no business, sustainable or otherwise.

Technology is the means by which KLM is improving the customer experience. The airlines social media head, Karlijn Vogel-Meijer, explained this brave new world of customer service. “We have to be where the customers are,” she said as she offered a tour of the airline’s social media hub.

Gone are the days where an airline can develop a smartphone app and hope to offer products and converse with customers solely on that channel. Passengers appear to be on almost as many apps as the 130-plus international destinations KLM serves. Chinese customers prefer WeChat; Facebook Messenger and Twitter are also popular forums by which customers interact with KLM staff. Forget about the response, “you can buy your ticket on the KLM web site or app.” The airline’s social media hub is staffed 24/7 to ensure no request or concern falls through the cracks. A monitor showcasing a word cloud at an office next to the airport at Schiphol shows employees an idea of how the company is performing in real time. But not only does this social media team put out fires before they start, they are adding to the company’s coffers – at last count, sales occurring via social media channels generated over $30 million for the company last year.

Rather than fearing and trying to control social media, KLM appears to embrace social media as a way to conduct business, interact with consumers and accept it as a way to monitor its progress. “The proliferation of handheld devices and social media is empowering consumers and encouraging the industry to become more transparent,” concluded the company in its most annual report.

KLM’s peers are certainly noticing. The company is a mainstay on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, appearing on the list’s airline roster for 12 years in a row.

Image credits: KLM

Disclosure: KLM funded Leon Kaye’s trip to Amsterdam. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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