The DOT might have very little say about Amsterdam flight cuts

Earlier this month, the DOT found a Netherlands government plan to reduce flying at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to be in violation of the Open Skies aviation treaty the U.S. has in place with the EU. 

However, taking retaliatory action, such as imposing significant sanctions against Dutch carriers, could be challenging. 

“Open Skies doesn’t guarantee you anything, it just guarantees you’ll be treated fairly,” said airline industry consultant Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co.  

The DOT released its order against the Netherlands on Nov. 2, the same day that Airport Coordination Netherlands (ACNL), which oversees landing and departure slots at Schiphol, told JetBlue that it won’t be allocated slots for the 2024 summer season. The ACNL also informed Delta that it would see a reduction of 252 Amsterdam slots next summer.

In addition, United will lose 53 summer Amsterdam slots next year, and American will lose 22 slots. 

The cuts are part of a Dutch plan geared toward reducing noise around Schiphol and reducing aircraft emissions.

Overall, flying to the Amsterdam airport is expected to be reduced by 8% next summer, and further reductions will bring total aircraft movements to 10% below the pre-Covid level for the 12 months that begin in late October 2024.  

JetBlue, which began flying to Amsterdam in August from New York JFK and in September from Boston, is one of 24 airlines that flew to Schiphol last summer but will not have slot allocations for next summer. Those airlines are ones that do not hold historic slots rights at Schiphol. The 84 airlines that do hold historic slots to fly to Amsterdam face a reduction in their slot portfolio of 3.1% for next summer. 

The cuts apply to all airlines, including Netherlands-based carriers, most significantly KLM, which will be restricted to flying 17 fewer Amsterdam flight legs per day next summer than pre-pandemic. Air France-KLM has joined with its joint venture partner Delta as well as JetBlue, United and other carriers in appealing a July court decision that enabled the Dutch government to go ahead with the plan. 

In its Nov. 2 order, the DOT pointed to JetBlue’s complete loss of Amsterdam access. The cuts, the department said, amount to “an unjustifiable and unreasonable restriction on access of an air carrier to the U.S.-Amsterdam market.”

In particular, the DOT said that the Netherlands has failed to implement the balanced approach that is required by the treaty before it mandated Schiphol capacity cuts, a process that requires identifying other potential solutions and testing them to see if they are effective.

The DOT’s finding was responsive to complaints lodged against the Netherlands by trade group Airlines for America (A4A) and by JetBlue. But JetBlue pushed the envelope further than A4A in its request, asking that the department impose punitive capacity cuts against Dutch airlines or even freeze the ability of Dutch airlines to partner in an antitrust-immune alliance with U.S. carriers, a move that would suspend KLM’s joint venture with Delta. 

For now, the department hopes to find a solution through consultations with the Netherlands government and with the European Commission, but the DOT said that it “stands ready to consider any further action that may be appropriate.” 

Analysts said that the DOT might not have many levers to pull. 

Though Open Skies agreements ensure fairness, said Mann, they don’t guarantee airport access to specific carriers. 

“In this case they’re saying last to board is first to get off,” he said of the ACNL. “That hits JetBlue really hard, but that’s the way it is.”

Still, as a punitive measure, the DOT could decide not to award new slots to Dutch airlines at capacity-restricted U.S. airports, such as New York JFK or Chicago O’Hare. KLM is currently the only Netherlands-based carrier flying to the U.S.

“We have historically made space for foreign carriers wishing to serve slot-restricted U.S. airports, often at the expense of U.S. flag airlines,” Mann said. “That may not continue with Dutch carriers as a quid-pro-quo for excluding U.S. carriers at Amsterdam.” 

Industry analyst Brett Snyder, who pens the Cranky Flier blog, said he doubts the DOT order will have much of an impact in The Hague.

“I don’t see how this is going to change anything with the Dutch government if they’re hell-bent on making this happen,” he said. 

Complicating the DOT’s ability to punish Dutch carriers is the joint venture between Delta and Air France-KLM. If the DOT were to reduce KLM’s capacity allocations at U.S. airports, Delta could pick up that slack via a Schiphol slot trade-off, Snyder explained. Since joint ventures are, in essence, route-specific mergers, the impact would therefore be negligible. 

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