Photo of an airplane flying in a blue sky with csome clouds, by Artturi Jalli on Unsplash

How the Aviation Lobby Got the European Commission to Derail Dutch Flight Reduction Plans

By Moritz Neujeffski & Olivier Hoedeman

Last week the Dutch government announced it was abandoning plans to reduce flight numbers at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport by 10 per cent. The measure, which would have introduced a cap of 460,000 flights annually, was aimed at diminishing noise pollution for local residents, and would have simultaneously cut CO2 emissions. This reversal, termed a "bitter pill for the environment" by the government, was the result of political pressure from the European Commission and the US government. The European Commission in particular had been heavily lobbied by the aviation industry on the matter.

The decision was met with deep disappointment by environmental NGOs. Transport & Environment commented that “the reversal is a loss for the climate and for the health of Dutch citizens for the benefit of a few airlines' bottom line”. Greenpeace stated its disappointment that “Days after a huge climate march in Amsterdam, the Dutch government drops plan to cap the number of flights at Schiphol airport, one of EU's busiest” and pointed to the problematic role of “EU Commissioner and aviation zealot Adina Valean” in the controversial decision.

The aviation sector went into battle mode as soon as the ground-breaking flight reduction plans were announced in June 2022. In addition to initiating legal action against the Dutch government in March, the airline industry has been heavily lobbying the European Commission since the outset, slamming the flight cap and urging an official investigation into its compliance with EU law.

Internal documents released via a freedom of information request by Corporate Europe Observatory show that there was very close contact between industry and DG MOVE, the Commission’s transport policy department. Within weeks of the Dutch plans being announced, the aviation industry approached the European Commission to go against the flight reduction plans. From July 2022 to March 2023, at least three airlines (KLM Royal Dutch, AirFrance, and Delta), five international airline associations (Airport Council International, Airlines for America, International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the 'Europeans for Fair competition coalition' (a self-described “alliance of airline employers and employees”, run by a lobby consultancy on behalf of airlines including KLM/AirFrance and Lufthansa), as well as some sector-specific trade unions, approached the European Commission repeatedly with the demand to investigate and block the plans. According to the EU’s lobby register, airline associations such as Airlines for Europe and the IATA spend up to a million euros each per year on lobbying the EU.

One of the key weapons in the airline industry's arsenal was the EU's Single Market Rules. The industry raised concerns about how the flight reduction rule would be in violation of these rules, and claimed procedural errors by the Dutch government. Airlines for America (A4A), for example, wrote to the Commission on 7/9 2022 that “the proposal may be incompatible with EU Internal Market principles and may violate several EU Regulations, including Regulation 598/2014 on noise management at airports”. A4A also approached the US government regarding the Dutch flight cap and argued that the Dutch plans also violated the U.S. - EU Air Transport Agreement (ATA).

Aviation's Ally: Director-General Hololei's Close Ties Revealed

The documents also show that the airports and airline industries had a close ally in then- Director-General Hololei in the months following the Dutch government’s policy initiative. For instance, IATA's cosy "Dear Henrik" email to Holohei of 27/2 2023 that states: "We are very much aware of the importance you give to this matter and how much you share our concerns, so we remain confident that you will do anything in your capacity to redress this situation". Hololei also met with Delta Airlines for dinner on 15/11 2022 to discuss the matter, the documents reveal.

KLM’s warm relations with Hololei also come across clearly in the email exchange on July 19 2022, where the KLM representative wrote “I would be eager to learn how you personally see the recent announcement of the Dutch government to limit the number of flights movements at Schiphol”. Hololei replied: “Thank you for reaching out to me, I appreciate this a lot… I would be very happy to catch up with you”.

Director-General Hololei, known for his close relations with the aviation industry, stepped down from his position in March 2023 following internal investigations that uncovered his acceptance of complimentary business class flights from Qatar Airways during the Open Skies deal negotiations with Qatar.

Dutch Government Bows to Commission Pressure

After initial success by the airlines against the government’s reduction plans in a case at a lower court, the Dutch High Court ruled in July 2023 that the plans were legal. When the Dutch government submitted its official notification of the flight cap to the European Commission on 1 September, however, DG MOVE swiftly launched a review of whether the plans were in compliance with EU law. The Dutch government provided a detailed overview of its adherence to the so-called “balanced approach” enshrined in EU aviation law, which entails weighing economic interests and environmental and noise concerns, with flight reductions as the last option.

Meanwhile airlines have continued to lobby DG Move throughout this year. The Commission met with KLM on 9 June and 20 July, with the Airports Council International (ACI) on 22 June and Schiphol airport on 11 July, and was contacted repeatedly by IATA, Airlines for America, DHL Group, DHL Express, the European Express Association and others. However, the specifics of these meetings and email exchanges remain shrouded in secrecy. DG MOVE rejected a second freedom of information request by Corporate Europe Observatory covering the period of March-August this year, refusing to disclose correspondence and notes from meetings with the aviation industry. The Commission claims these lobby documents “form part of the administrative file” of its review of the Schiphol flights cap. We have appealed this secrecy and are now waiting for a response from the Commission leadership.

However, what is clear is that the EU Commission played a direct role in making the Dutch government shelf the flight cap policy. In a letter dated November 13, European Commissioner Vălean expressed strong concerns about the flight cap and explicitly threatened launching an infringement procedure against the Netherlands for non-compliance with EU law. Infringement procedures can result in fines and other sanctions. Notably, this letter was sent following discussions among EU and US government officials behind closed doors on the same day.

Outdated mindset

This is part of a worrying pattern where all too often rules labeled 'obstacles' to the Single Market are actually crucial steps for the broader good, such as measures to achieve public health and environment goals. The EU Commission blocking the reduction of flights at one of Europe's busiest airports exposes an outdated mindset that prioritises the financial interests of the aviation industry over public health and the environment.

The decision is just one of many examples – not least a similar recent case by the aviation industry against curbing of short-distance flights in France – where corporate complaints have resulted in Commission investigations and the weakening or withdrawal of much needed environmental protection measures.

The Commission’s sabotaging of the flight reduction plans shows the urgent need for a revision of EU aviation law but also a wider overhaul of Single Market law and the Commission’s problematic enforcement habits. Instead of throwing up obstacles, a supportive framework is needed to safeguard the measures required for Europe's urgent ecological and social transition.

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