The sky is (not) the limit –Michiel van Dorst, CEO of LVNL

Michiel van Dorst started his career as a KLM pilot, combining his flying career with several management positions, including six years in the Executive Committee of KLM. For the past six years he has been leading Air Traffic Control the Netherlands (LVNL). With Flevum he discussed LVNL’s crucial contribution to the Dutch economy as well as his approach in dealing with the wide range of diverse stakeholders.

More efficient, more sustainable
Most people know LVNL by its tough admission requirements for new air traffic controllers and tower controllers at Schiphol airport. However, LVNL’s operating area extends beyond Schiphol, it reaches to the Netherlands’ borders. This is necessary to ensure that the Netherlands is accessible to civil air traffic. Since 1 July 2023, military air traffic control is also included in the organization’s range of tasks.

“Our work is far more internationally oriented than many people realize. Although our direct responsibility is restricted to the Netherlands’ borders, an important part of our work consists of collaboration with other countries and organizations. There are no scheduled flights staying inside the Netherlands, which means that cross-border coordination is crucial.”

Van Dorst has been flying as a KLM pilot for 23 years, an experience that allows him to confirm that LVNL staff are among the best air traffic controllers in the world. He stresses, however, that LVNL’s activities involve much more than the attention-grabbing work from the air traffic control tower. Van Dorst describes his organization as “an engineering company with air traffic controllers”. This definition underlines the CEO’s focus for the coming years. In order to improve LVNL service even further, the organization will have to use the large numbers of data that are generated on a daily basis. The international exchange of these data enables the air traffic control organizations to make European air traffic more efficient, and also more sustainable.

“The bleep on the radar’s scope is enriched with all kinds of data. The information used to be restricted to an indication of the airplane’s location, but now additional information is generated about the plane’s destination, its speed, and across which area it is flying. If we want to improve the situation for the residents in the Schiphol region, next to rendering high quality service for airlines and passengers, we need to use innovative technology. Simple as this may seem, it is a hell of a job.”

From Brussels to Aalsmeer
This means that ICT programming plays a crucial role in the work of LVNL, where new developments always go hand in hand with air traffic controllers’ insights. The organization will take up the renewal of the air traffic control system, collaborating in a pan-European consortium. “We will be replacing the current AAA system that has been used for 25 years by iCAS. This will enable us to speed up the implementation of innovations aimed at optimizing flights. In this way ambient noise will be decreased and emissions will be reduced.

This is only one of LVNL’s many international cooperative efforts. In addition, the organization works with a large variety of stakeholders. The legislative framework applies in global, European and national contexts. LVNL is an independent administrative body (zbo), carrying out government tasks. This means that Dutch government policy has great impact on the organization. As a CEO, how does one deal with the many different stakeholders and issues? Van Dorst regards this as a challenging aspect of his position.

“For a zbo organization, the government’s vision on aviation greatly influences your work: what are the government’s views of emissions, noise pollution, room for civil aviation in relation to military aviation? However, these issues represent only part of our wide-ranging field of stakeholders. We need to consider the European Commission, but also the Aalsmeer city councilor who is responsible for the issue of noise pollution.

The European Commission, for instance, plays an important role in the field of changes in the new layout of European airspace and in financial flows to our organization. At the same time, our customers, the airlines, want to be able to fly to Schiphol every day in a safe, efficient, and environmentally conscious way. And of course, the airlines have a very different horizon than the Dutch provincial governments, the Minister or a resident of the Schiphol area.”

Strategy is central
The diverse field of stakeholders results in a high level of dynamics in the CEO’s work. This is accompanied by a continuous search to find a balance: where airlines are focused on their quarterly figures, governments come up with long-term plans, such as the EU Green Deal. Working in line with all demands and regulations is a great challenge.

“For some companies the department strategy is somewhat sidelined, it is not leading in the execution of the company’s activities. For us, strategy is central in our operation. Particularly so, because we are always involved in balancing interests. This is what we do, it is our business on which we spend a lot of time and energy. Strategy is crucial in maintaining good contacts with our various stakeholders. This is also visible in our organization: only a third of our staff are air traffic controllers, while most of them are engineers, trainers of air traffic controllers or professionals who are working on other aspects of our operation, including stakeholder management.”

Champions League
For LVNL, as for other companies, it is increasingly difficult to find the right people for its vacancies. However, for his organization the reason for the shortage is twofold, Van Dorst stresses. Only few people are qualified to start the air traffic controller’s training, which means that LVNL has always been faced with a shortage of candidates.

‘’I like to say that Schiphol is the Champions League when taking into account the hourly capacity and the runways’ layout. It is quite difficult to find air traffic controllers making their debut at this level. In soccer, no one ever starts at this high a level. For us, therefore, it is a challenge to find talented people who are able to deal with this level. We give a lot of attention to our recruitment of air traffic controllers, which each year results, fortunately, in many applications. Aviation continues to be a very appealing sector for young people in the Netherlands”

At the same time, Van Dorst is well aware of the fact that LVNL, as well as other organizations, is hampered by the shortage of professionals in engineering. LVNL has entered into collaborative partnerships with TU Delft and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in order to attract young talents, for example by making internship positions available. Some of the interns then go to work for LVNL. At the beginning of July the Innovation Lab (iLabs) was opened, a collaboration between LVNL and TU Delft at Schiphol -East. Students are welcome to work here on research projects for innovative Air Traffic Management (ATM) solutions. This focus on quality and innovation is characteristic for the organization, Van Dorst says. When he first started working for LVNL, he particularly noticed the pride each and every employee felt about their work.

“The high hourly capacity of air traffic being handled, at the same time supporting the airlines in their profitability model: this is what we’re good at, and this is also what we’re proud of. I also noticed that people describe LVNL as a sincere company. As a new employee you are welcomed with open arms. Everybody takes the time to explain what they are doing in their jobs. That combination of high quality and a pleasant working atmosphere is very valuable.”

View on the outside world
The task that Van Dorst has set himself is to turn towards society in a more emphatical manner, to become a party with which communication is easy.

‘’I sometimes wonder how that barrier came into existence. In my view the reason lies in our high quality: we always develop our plans into the last detail before presenting them to the outside world. In our field that is a must: air traffic cannot be left to chance. This leads to people thinking: `Oh, this is LVNL again with its plans that cannot be changed’. I can understand that this sometimes causes our partners to feel frustrated.”

He stresses that it is important to allow people to exert their bit of influence, as long as this fits within the legislative and realistic framework.

“During my time with KLM there was more room for some flexibility. We then introduced, for instance, a new destination during the summer, in order to assess whether demand was sufficient. Of course we applied all safety procedures then, but at LVNL it is impossible to just try something. Any change should be thoroughly tested before implemented and should be 100% safe.”

The combination of an open attitude and a continued high quality are characteristic of the CEO’s leadership’s style. Van Dorst strives to combine the organization’s pride with a perspective on the outside world. How does one combine existing capacities and systems, and how does one translate this to the various stakeholders outside of the organization? And how does one realize value creation?

In close cooperation with the stakeholders, Van Dorst strives to incorporate all wishes in the project and IT portfolio’s. One example: planes no longer are guided to the runway in a direct line, but they fly as much as possible around residential areas before landing on the Polder Runway or the Zwanenburg Runway. In this way LVNL secures a safe situation, and also reduces noise pollution for residents. Also, LVNL succeeded to increase Schiphol capacity in poor visibility circumstances.

These are some of many examples of LVNL’s daily impact. Van Dorst regards it his and other managers’ responsibility to deal with shared areas of concern.

“Take for instance sustainability and our position on this issue. This is only one of the many transitions we are going through right now. The government’s decision to size down Schiphol affects the entire aviation sector and will possibly impact the Dutch business environment. At the same time, we are experiencing shortages on the labor market and there is the nitrogen problem that has an impact on many aspects of society. As managers we should proactively deal with these developments, in order to combine prosperity and wellbeing. Of course the government has a leading role in this matter. The Dutch earning model should be part of a broad public debate. We cannot do this on our own, we should work on this together.”

Michiel van Dorst will give a keynote speech about LVNL’s stakeholder management during a Board of Directors meeting. If you are interested to join, click here.

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