Air France-KLM boss warns travelers: Go to the airport early

The chief of airline alliance Air France-KLM says it will take weeks or months to get new security staff in place to lighten pressure on the Amsterdam airport

The chief of airline alliance Air France-KLM said Thursday that it will take weeks or months to get new security staff in place to lighten pressure on the Amsterdam airport, which has seen flight cancellations, damaging delays and big travel headaches as global air travel rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith told reporters that the company is seeking compensation for some of its losses, blaming the troubles at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on shortages of security and other ground personnel outside KLM’s control.

While the Dutch government faces pressure to find solutions, once security personnel are recruited, “it could take weeks or months to have them in a position" because of government requirements for security clearances, Smith said.

Airlines and airports that slashed jobs during the pandemic are struggling to keep up with soaring travel demand, and passengers are encountering chaotic scenes at airports around Europe and the U.S.

Smith downplayed concerns about an Air France pilots' strike scheduled for Saturday, saying only a small minority of pilots are expected to participate and he doesn't expect it to affect operations.

The main Paris airport, Charles de Gaulle, has not seen many travel disruptions like those in Amsterdam, London and some other hubs. Smith attributed that to Air France’s decision last year to hire hundreds of pilots, mechanics and cabin staff in anticipation of a surge in demand in this summer.

The airlines are still down staff: 7,500 people were laid off or left Air France because of the pandemic travel crash, and KLM lost 3,000.

But Smith said all of the airlines’ planes are operating, and the company foresees 85% to 90% of pre-pandemic flight activity this summer worldwide.

“We see a strong pent-up demand for leisure travel, people who haven’t been able to fly for two years," he said.

Despite concerns about rising COVID-19 cases and risks of a recession, he predicted high demand into the fall.

Soaring global fuel prices are sending plane ticket prices through the roof, but Smith said that isn’t stopping people from flying.

“The ability to pass on higher costs to customers is unbelievable,” particularly in first class and business class, he said. “Trying to get a seat out of New York is impossible.”

Still, he warned that because of high fuel costs and broader inflation, “We’re not going to see a bonanza year of profits. It’s still a long path” back to pre-pandemic operations.

The French and Dutch governments saved Air France and KLM from near collapse when the pandemic hit, with billions of euros in loans. Smith said the company hopes to pay off the Dutch aid in the coming months and 75% of the French aid by the end of this year.

He welcomed the return to travel freedoms but warned travelers: “Allow extra time to get into and out of airports — and book early. Flights are filling up.”

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