'Flight game is not a fair fight' says Varwijk

Other industries are far bigger polluters but the politicians win votes by coming down hardest on aviation sector, KLM executive Erik Varwijk tells Toby Green
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The Independent Online

The aviation industry has been unfairly attacked over its environmental record and singled out despite other industries being more egregious polluters, a managing director at Dutch airline KLM has claimed.

Speaking to The Independent, Erik Varwijk said airlines faced more attention than the shipping industry whose CO2 emissions are higher. Environmentalists' criticism of aviation's emissions record has hit the industry hard, most notably preventing expansion at Heathrow, which is full to the brim as it processes 65 million international passengers a year.

Mr Varwijk said: "I honestly think our industry has come under unfairattack. It's interesting... that the aviation sector is much more visible and gets much more criticism, whereas for example the shipping industry is polluting much more.

"If you look at what ships do in terms of CO2 emissions it's incredible, but the general public is not aware."

While emissions from aviation are estimated to make up around 2 per cent of global CO2 emissions, the shipping industry is believed to account for between 3 and 4 per cent. Yet airlines face more pressure, claimed Mr Varwijk, because "shipping is not as interesting in a political debate as aviation is".

He added: "Aviation is consumer and consumer is voters, and voters is interesting stuff. That makes you sometimes a bit cynical [about the criticism], but that's the way it is."

While Mr Varwijk believes airlines should do their fair share in terms of contributing to a cleaner aviation sector, he also called for greater pressure on the plane manufacturers to make environmental improvements, saying they were using the best craft that were currently available.

The latest battleground in the fight between the industry and environmental campaigners is the debate over the third runway at Heathrow, whose position as the world's leading international hub is under serious threat from Dubai. It emerged at the weekend that Heathrow owner BAA is threatening to sue the Government for ruling out another runway, which many aviation experts consider vital to ensure that the airport is not overtaken by the likes of Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Schipol in Amsterdam.

However, Mr Varwijk, pictured right, said he believed the issues of the environment and developing aviation infrastructure "don't necessarily fight with each other – there are green ways to grow". He added: "I certainly believe in green solutions for the aviation sector, which are necessary because it is not realistic to assume there will not be aviation in the future.

"I think aviation is a crucial sector of any society, but you need to do it as responsibly as possible."

KLM is part of the Air France-KLM group, which is finding times tough despite being Europe's second biggest flag-carrier by revenue. Currently locked in talks with unions over its major cost-cutting plans, last year the company suffered an operating loss of €353m and its start to the new financial year has been worse than expected.

While record fuel costs have hit hard, the current economic climate has not helped but Mr Varwijk – who said he was "convinced" demand for aviation will continue to rise, just not at the pace of the past three decades – highlighted KLM's focus on emerging markets as the reason for his cautious optimism.

In May the group restarted direct flights from Amsterdam to Zambia's capital Lusaka for the first time in 15 years, bringing its total number of destinations to 72. Havana and Rio de Janeiro have also recently been added to KLM's network.

Mr Varwijk also believes long immigration queues can be tackled withtechnology: "I think in five years immigration should not be a problem any more, because you should have the proper technology to identify customers quickly.

"And then either you go through or you don't. If you don't, you are then handled by an agent and you get questioned."