It will be a hundred years on October 7th that we celebrate the birth of KLM Royal Dutch Airline (KLM) and in order to understand the history of KLM, it is worthwhile to study the culture that gave impetus to its founding and development. 

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, legally Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V. (literal translation: Royal Aviation Company, Inc.), is the flag carrier airline of the Netherlands. KLM is headquartered in Amstelveen, with its hub at nearby Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

KLM is the oldest airline in the world still operating under its original name. It has a fascinating history of continuous service – starting out with historic short flights to London, then expanding to offer intercontinental service to Asia, and as of April 2019, serving 135 destinations worldwide with 212 aircraft. This article takes a look back over the highlights of this history.

Geography and history matter; because of their proximity to the sea, small size, and lack of natural resources, the Dutch were and still are a nation of explorers and traders. The Netherlands started commercial trading early on with the Dutch East India Company operating in Indonesia and Japan. To give you an idea of its long history, the Netherlands celebrated four hundred years of trading with Japan in 2000. 

This is why the founding of the internationally reputed KLM Royal Dutch Airlines by this small country with a relatively small population should not come as a surprise.

Albert Plesman

All great ventures begin with a visionary leader; and in KLM’s case it was Albert Plesman. He was born as the son of an egg trader from The Hague. In 1915 he joined the mobilized Dutch airforce as a professional officer in Soesterberg.

Anthony Fokker 1912
Anthony Fokker

After World War I, in which the Netherlands remained neutral, he started the organization of ELTA, the “Eerste Luchtverkeer Tentoonstelling Amsterdam” (First Aviation Exhibition Amsterdam), held from August 1 till September 14, 1919. For that occasion, enormous halls (hangars) were built. Right after the exhibition these were used by Anthony Fokker, for his new company Nederlandse Vliegtuigenfabriek (Dutch Aircraft Factory), subsequently the Fokker airplane factory. 

All these activities led to the establishment of the Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), of which Plesman became director, and which he made a flourishing company. After World War II Plesman was appointed president-director of KLM. After the recovery from the war the company became a renowned airline company under his leadership.

KLM first commerical flight KLM-flight-from-London-to-Amsterdam
Aircraft used for first commercial flight.

The First Commercial Flight 

The first KLM flight took place on 17 May 1920. KLM’s first pilot, Jerry Shaw, flew from Croydon Airport, London, to Amsterdam. The flight was flown using a leased Aircraft Transport and Travel De Haviland DH-16 which was carrying two British journalists and some newspapers. In 1920, KLM carried 440 passengers and 22 tons of freight. In April 1921, after a winter hiatus, KLM resumed its services using its pilots, and Fokker F.II and Fokker F.III aircraft. In 1921, KLM started scheduled services. As the business grew, KLM began to operate their own Fokker planes, expanded their presence at Schiphol and opened a passenger office in central Amsterdam – the first for any airline.

Under Plesman’s visionary leadership, KLM made inroads in the aviation world. KLM’s first intercontinental flight took off on 1 October 1924. The final destination was Jakarta (then called ‘Batavia’), Java, in the Dutch East Indies; the flight used a Fokker F.VII and was piloted by Van der Hoop. In September 1929, regular scheduled services between Amsterdam and Batavia commenced. Until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, this was the world’s longest-distance scheduled service by airplane. By 1926, it was offering flights to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris, London, Bremen, Copenhagen, and Malmö, using primarily Fokker F.II and Fokker F.III aircraft.

KLM’s most famous Douglas DC-2 was the legendary “Uiver” (Stork). The arrival of this aircraft type and the introduction of the Boeing 247, ushered in the age of the all-metal aircraft and a whole new form of aircraft manufacturing.

KLM Douglas DC-2 aircraft Uiver in transit at Rambang airfield on the east coast of Lombok island following the aircraft being placed second in the MacRobertson Air Race from RAF Mildenhall, England, to Melbourne in 1934.

The company continued its growth in the 1930’s. They broke away from their single vendor sourcing of aircraft and purchased it’s first foreign built in aircraft, the U.S. built Douglas DC-2. The Douglas DC-2 was introduced on the Batavia service in 1934. The first experimental transatlantic KLM flight was between Amsterdam and Curaçao in December 1934 using the Fokker F.XVIII “Snip”. The first of the airline’s Douglas DC-3 aircraft were delivered in 1936; these replaced the DC-2s on the service via Batavia to Sydney. KLM was the only civilian airline to receive the Douglas DC-5; the airline used two of them in the West Indies and sold two to the East Indies government, and is thus the only airline to have operated all Douglas ‘DC’ models other than the DC-1. 

World War II and Aftermath 

When Germany invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, several KLM aircraft—mostly DC-3s and a few DC-2s—were en route to or from the Far East, or were operating services in Europe. Five DC-3s and one DC-2 were taken to Britain. During the war, these aircraft and crew members flew scheduled passenger flights between Bristol and Lisbon under BOAC registration. 

The Douglas DC-3 PH-ALI “Ibis”, was attacked by the Luftwaffe on 15 November 1942, 19 April 1943, and finally on 1 June 1943 as BOAC Flight 777, killing all passengers and crew. Some KLM aircraft and their crews ended up in the Australia-Dutch East Indies region, where they helped transport refugees from Japanese aggression in that area. 

After the end of the Second World War in August 1945, KLM immediately started to rebuild its network. Since the Dutch East Indies were in a state of revolt, Plesman’s priority was to re-establish KLM’s route to Batavia. This service was reinstated by the end of 1945. Domestic and European flights resumed in September 1945, initially with a fleet of Douglas DC-3s and Douglas DC-4s. On 21 May 1946, KLM was the first continental European airline to start scheduled transatlantic flights between Amsterdam and New York City using Douglas DC-4 aircraft. By 1948, KLM had reconstructed its network and services to Africa, North and South America, and the Caribbean resumed. 

Lockheed L-749A Constellation of KLM in 1953

Long-range, pressurized Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-6s joined KLM’s fleet in the late 1940s; the Convair 240 short-range pressurized twin-engined airliner began European flights for the company in late 1948.

The high nose wheel, the rounded belly tapering off at the tail which consists of three vertical stabilisers. There is no mistaking the Lockheed Constellation, the “Connie.”

During the immediate post-war period, the Dutch government expressed interest in gaining a majority stake in KLM, thus nationalizing it. Plesman wanted KLM to remain a private company under private control; he allowed the Dutch government to acquire a minority stake in the airline. In 1950, KLM carried 356,069 passengers. The expansion of the network continued in the 1950s with the addition of several destinations in western North America. KLM’s fleet expanded with the addition of new versions of the Lockheed Constellation and Lockheed Electra, of which KLM was the first European airline to fly. 

KLM Vickers Viscount 803

On 31 December 1953, the founder and president of KLM, Albert Plesman, died at the age of 64. He was succeeded as president by Fons Aler. After Plesman’s death, the company and other airlines entered a difficult economic period.

Lockheed L188C Electra PH-LLD “Jupiter” of KLM
Lockheed L188C Electra PH-LLD “Jupiter” of KLM

On 25 July 1957, the airline introduced its flight simulator for the Douglas DC-7C – the last KLM aircraft with piston engines – which opened the transpolar route from Amsterdam via Anchorage to Tokyo on 1 November 1958. Each crew flying the transpolar route over the Arctic was equipped with a winter survival kit, including a 7.62 mm selective-fire AR-10 carbine for use against polar bears, in the event the plane was forced down onto the polar ice. 

The Jet Age 

In March 1960, the airline introduced the first Douglas DC-8 jet into its fleet. In 1961, KLM reported its first year of losses. In 1961, the airline’s president Fons Aler was succeeded by Ernst van der Beugel. This change of leadership, however, did not lead to a reversion of KLM’s financial difficulties. By 1966, the stake of the Dutch government in KLM was reduced to a minority stake of 49.5%. In 1966, KLM introduced the Douglas DC-9 on European and Middle East routes. 

KLM Lockheed Electra Turboprop Airliner in 1965

The new terminal buildings at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol opened in April 1967, and in 1968 the stretched Douglas DC-8-63 (“Super DC-8”) entered service. With 244 seats, it was the largest airliner at the time. KLM was the first airline to put the higher-gross-weight Boeing 747-200B, into service in February 1971. This began the airline’s use of widebody jets. In March 1971, KLM opened its current headquarters in Amstelveen and In 1972, it purchased the first of several McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft—McDonnell Douglas’s response to Boeing’s 747. 

In 1973, Sergio Orlandini was appointed to succeed Gerrit van der Wal as president of KLM. At the time, KLM, as well as other airlines, had to deal with overcapacity. Orlandini proposed to convert KLM 747s to “combis” that could carry a combination of passengers and freight in a mixed configuration on the main deck of the aircraft. 

1980s and 1990s

In 1980, KLM carried 9,715,069 passengers. In 1983, it reached an agreement with Boeing to convert ten of its Boeing 747-200 aircraft (Three 747-200Bs and Seven 747-200Ms) into Boeing 747-300s with the stretched-upper-deck modification. 

With the liberalization of the European market, KLM started developing its hub at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol by feeding its network with traffic from affiliated airlines. As part of its development of a worldwide network, KLM acquired a 20% stake in Northwest Airlines in July 1989. In 1990, KLM carried 16,000,000 passengers. KLM president Jan de Soet retired at the end of 1990 and was succeeded in 1991 by Pieter Bouw. In December 1991, KLM was the first European airline to introduce a frequent flyer loyalty program, which was called Flying Dutchman. 

Joint Venture

In January 1993, the United States Department of Transportation granted KLM and Northwest Airlines anti-trust immunity, which allowed them to intensify their partnership. As of September 1993, the airlines operated their flights between the United States and Europe as part of a joint venture.

McDonnell Douglas DC-10

In 1997, Leo van Wijk was announced as CEO and in August 1998, KLM repurchased all regular shares from the Dutch government to make KLM a private company. On 1 November 1999, KLM founded AirCares, a communication and fundraising platform supporting worthy causes and focusing on underprivileged children. 

KLM renewed its intercontinental fleets by replacing the Boeing 767s, Boeing 747-300s, and eventually, the McDonnell Douglas MD-11s with Boeing 787-10 and 777-200ERs and Airbus A330-200s. Some 747s were withdrawn from service first. The MD-11s remained in service until October 2014. The first Boeing 777 was received on 25 October 2003, while the first Airbus A330-200 was introduced on 25 August 2005. 

Air France–KLM Merger

On 30 September 2003, Air France and KLM agreed to a merger plan in which Air France and KLM would become subsidiaries of a holding company called Air France–KLM. Both airlines would retain their own brands; both Charles de Gaulle Airport and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol would become key hubs.

In February 2004, the European Commission and United States Department of Justice approved the proposed merger of the airlines.

It did not appear that KLM’s longstanding joint venture with Northwest Airlines—which merged with Delta Air Lines in 2008—was affected by the merger with Air France. KLM and Northwest joined the SkyTeam alliance in September 2004. Also, in 2004, senior management came under fire for providing itself with controversial bonuses after the merger with Air France, while 4,500 jobs were lost at KLM. After external pressure, management gave up on these bonuses. 

2010s and Recent

Beginning in September 2010, KLM integrated the passenger division of Martinair into KLM, transferring all personnel and routes. By November 2011, Martinair consisted of only the cargo and maintenance division.

On 15 October 2014, KLM announced the appointment of Pieter Elbers as President and CEO. Prior to this announcement, KLM had received the award for “Best Airline Staff Service” in Europe at the World Airline Awards 2013. This award represents the rating for an airline’s performance across both airport staff and cabin staff combined. It was the second consecutive year that KLM won this award; in 2012 it was awarded with this title as well. On 19 June 2012, KLM made the first transatlantic flight fueled partly by sustainable biofuels to Rio de Janeiro. This was the longest distance any aircraft had flown on biofuels. 

In 2019, KLM celebrates its centennial, as it was founded in 1919. Since it is the oldest airline still operating under its original name, it is the first airline to achieve this feat.

Joseph Alba
Mr. Alba was previously Editor of the Airport Press for 12 years covering both local as well as global aviation news. Prior to this, Mr. Alba had Executive positions in Systems Engineering and Marketing with IBM World Trade, and had foreign assignments in the Far East and Latin America earning three Outstanding Achievement Awards. Mr. Alba also directed a new function dealing with Alternate Fuels for Public Service Electric & Gas company in New Jersey and founded a Natural Gas Vehicle Consortium consisting of car company executives and fleet owners, and NGV suppliers in New Jersey. Mr. Alba was a founding partner of ATA, an IT Consulting company which is still active in Central and South America. After leaving the armed forces, Mr. Alba’s initial employee was the U.S. Defense Department as an analyst.


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