Dutch ministers hold 'intensive' talks with Air France-KLM boss

Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra speaks to the press after he met with the Dutch Infrstructure minister and the CEO of Air France-KLM on Friday in the Hague, The Netherlands. Air France-KLM chief Ben Smith and two top Dutch ministers held "intensive" talks over KLM's future within the alliance, as a question mark hung over the position of the Dutch carrier's chief executive. — AFP

THE HAGUE — Two top Dutch ministers held "intensive" talks Friday with Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith on KLM's future in the Franco-Dutch alliance, as a question mark hung over the position of the Dutch arm's chief executive.

The Dutch government has thrown its support behind KLM chief executive Pieter Elbers amid suggestions he could be axed at a board meeting of the troubled airline on Tuesday.

"We as ministers are doing everything possible to ensure that KLM's future interests are guaranteed," Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra told reporters after the talks.

"It was an intensive discussion," between himself, Infrastructure Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen and Smith, who travelled to the Netherlands for the meeting, Hoekstra added.

As well as the Dutch government, KLM's managers and thousands of staff members have given their support to Elbers, who was appointed in 2018 to head the airline's Dutch wing.

Asked about Friday's talks with Smith, including Elbers' position, Hoekstra said: "I am not going to go into the details... but naturally it was about the Netherlands' best long-term interests and how it can be guaranteed."

The ministers also asked that "KLM" remains as part of the company name, the NOS public broadcaster reported.

More than 1,000 KLM employees demonstrated in Elbers' support on Thursday at the airline's headquarters close to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

They handed over a petition signed by 25,000 employees and carried placards with a blue heart saying "KLM needs Elbers".

Smith took over Air France-KLM in September after the rapid exit of former CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac in a bitter dispute over salaries in the French arm.

The company kept Elbers in the role after naming Canadian Smith as its first non-French chief executive, but Dutch news reports said that Elbers was seen as "difficult" and standing in the way of Smith's plans to merge the two arms more closely.

The Dutch government, which owns a minor 6.0 percent share in Air France-KLM, stepped into the fray last week when it officially backed Elbers' reappointment.

Hoekstra raised the subject with his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire at a meeting of eurozone ministers in Brussels on Monday.

Air France and KLM merged in 2004 but still continue to operate largely separately, while the French arm has in particular struggled with industrial action in recent years.

"It is remarkable that we are having this discussion, while the Dutch part over the last few years performed very well," Hoekstra said. — AFP