Economy & Politics

Interview “You can even hear birds chirping here”

The corona pandemic has temporarily shut down air traffic.imago images / Overstreet

Klaus Froese stands in the Lufthansa traffic control center at Frankfurt Airport and looks at the empty runways that are shrouded in thick fog on this December morning. Normally, engines roar here continuously, now there is usually a very long silence. The airport operator Fraport shut down one runway again in mid-December, one of the two terminals is closed.

Air traffic, which has been booming for decades, has been completely paralyzed by the pandemic, and travel bans, travel warnings and entry restrictions have taken full effect. Everyone is affected: airports, traditional airlines as well as low-cost providers, manufacturers, suppliers, tour operators, hotels and service providers. An emergency stop at high speed. You would say reverse thrust in the cockpit.

Froese is a trained pilot, but like some of his colleagues also works in Lufthansa’s management. The 57-year-old has overall responsibility for the airline in Frankfurt and is currently one of the most important crisis managers in the troubled group. Mr. Froese, we are talking to each other today via video conference. What would you have shown me at a personal meeting at Frankfurt Airport?

KLAUS FROESE: I would have taken you to the airport apron. You would normally have heard dozens of engines there. But you don’t hear anything right now. Every morning around ten o’clock a bigger wave flies off. After that it’s quiet again. This silence still takes getting used to. You can even hear birds chirping here.

Then what do you do?

I sit here with my team in the traffic control center, the operational heart of Lufthansa. Parts of the building are almost deserted. In others, of course, our colleagues are now making sure that the flights are in the air on time and reliably. And we are preparing for a wide variety of scenarios here. The current situation is highly volatile – making planning accordingly difficult. But we have experience with it. If you just think about how we reduced flight operations to almost zero within a very short time in the spring. And even now we can react to current developments at short notice.

Which one? The previously unshakable belief that travel will pick up faster and stronger after every crisis has now vanished.

We will not get back to the previous level anytime soon, but will initially only offer 20 to 30 percent of the previous year’s capacity. But perhaps the restart in the second half of 2021 will be more steep than previously assumed. If the distribution of the corona vaccine goes according to plan, more optimistic scenarios for ramp-up, i.e. for restarting flight operations, are also conceivable. But we are careful. In June the entire industry had already looked hopefully ahead, in August it became apparent that the recovery trend would not continue and we are now experiencing a second lockdown. About 80 planes are currently flying for Lufthansa. But we are very flexible and of course we can put additional aircraft into operation whenever necessary.

But at the moment the group is in “winter mode”, as Lufthansa boss Carsten Spohr calls it: there are fewer aircraft and therefore fewer employees in use. Thousands of employees are on short-time work and at least 30,000 jobs are being cut. Losses and debts in the billions weigh on the group. In addition to deficiency management, what can you plan for the future?

We are forced to make cuts that we would not have made voluntarily. Now we have to save, resize, restructure and in the end we will not be as big as before. We have to make the company fit for what’s coming. Because we will soon be exposed to a more intense competitive situation again. We don’t just want to survive the crisis and lie like a battered boxer in the corner of the ring. We claim to continue to be a leader in Europe even after the crisis. Even if we don’t invest in new software on a large scale, we are still working to make management structures and processes faster and better.

What specifically?

We’re learning new things every day. One example are the so-called tested flights, in which all passengers are tested for Covid-19 before departure. There has never been anything like it at Lufthansa before. We improve these processes during operation and optimize the process together with the quick test manufacturers, the authorities and with the voluntary consent of our passengers. We believe in these rapid tests very strongly. Nationwide, they are a way of making travel possible again on a larger scale. Only passengers who have previously taken a free quick test at the airport and can show a negative result are allowed on board.

However, even for this short domestic flight, passengers have to be at the airport two hours before departure. How do you intend to make this attractive to the frequent flyers, who prefer to show up 20 minutes in advance?

The vast majority of customers find the test offer good. After all, many people have a very strong desire to travel, whether for business or pleasure. And the rapid tests are an effective method of ensuring freedom of travel and health protection together. This is especially true for the next few months, maybe even a longer period. We will continue to improve the entire process, for example shortening the distances between test centers and evaluation laboratories. And the tests will get even better technically and deliver results faster, so that we can do it on a large scale by spring at the latest.

Does that mean on a large scale that rapid tests will then be introduced for most or even all flights?

We assume dozens of flights, and at some point hundreds of flights. I am convinced that this will be part of the standard business for Lufthansa from March onwards. Then the whole process should be manageable within an hour. The infrastructure will be adapted accordingly together with our partners.

In order to circumvent strict travel restrictions with quarantine times, individual countries, airlines and airports negotiate so-called flight corridors. Delta Air Lines wants to offer flights from Atlanta to Rome where all passengers are tested multiple times. Is that also a model for Lufthansa?

We still fly to numerous destinations in the USA, but strict restrictions apply to our passengers: at the moment, only US citizens, diplomats and travelers with permanent residence permits are allowed to enter the USA. Tests do not change that at the moment. That is why we are talking to the responsible authorities about how more people can travel between the USA and Europe in the future. Tests could also be a possibility for this. I hope that we will be able to offer more flights again very soon – for example with tested passengers – in early 2021.

This conversation was conducted for an extensive analysis of the airline and airport crisis, which you can read in magazine 02/2021.


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