On January 17, 1991, while attending a function at the Netherland Club at Rockefeller Center, the reception came to a halt around 7 p.m. when the news broke that the US declared war on Iraq and that an invasion would be imminent.
As we were watching the news unfolding with our mouths open, we wondered what this would mean for the economy — the business at hand, and for our aviation future.
As VP and General Manager, North America for Martinair Holland, we were knee-deep in the process of launching a substantial scheduled-charter program from Amsterdam to multiple cities in the United States and Canada. Many tour-operator programs were printed and agreements were made with consolidators and the travel industry. The Martinair sales staff was busy selling the seats to the travel agents, and an advertising campaign had started.
In 1991, Martinair was operating a convertible fleet with DC-1Os and 747’s as well as other passenger aircraft.
Since the cargo market historically was always stronger during the winter season, most of the aircraft were converted into a cargo configuration, whereas in the spring and the summer, passenger seats replaced the cargo floor. As per the planning, all Martinair cargo aircraft would be converted to passenger in April 1991.
One can imagine when I returned to the office the next day; our staff was quite worried about this sudden development. The news channels were reporting on the imminent invasion and the papers were full with the troop deployments.
The public, understandably, was becoming very concerned about this development and soon it became clear that many of them wanted to stay close to home and would not travel.
Passengers began canceling their reservations, group trips were cancelled and the business traveler was holding back their plans to travel. Any new bookings had stopped and the consolidators and tour operators were approaching our management to reduce the allotments.
In the wake of these events, one morning at the end of January, my phone rang at home and the president of Martinair’s executive secretary said, “Henk the Boss’ wants you to be at HDQ at Schiphol by tomorrow”.
That night, I drove to JFK and boarded KL644 and flew to Amsterdam; as did all of the other area managers’ of Martinair.
After freshening up upon my arrival in Amsterdam, the meeting with Martin Schröder and his executive staff began. He looked all of us in the eye and said, “I am cancelling the North American passenger program, except for Florida and the Caribbean, and I am converting the rest of the fleet into cargo.”
Then he declared: “Guitjens, I want to fly for the US Government as I know that they will require a lot of cargo lift and do not believe that the U.S. carriers can provide sufficient airplanes”.
I said: “Martin that will be difficult to do, as we are not an U.S. carrier and we are not part of the U.S. Civil Air Fleet Program.” Martin Schröder said: “ I really do not care Henk, go and talk to our DC lawyers, go the Pentagon, the State department, call the Dutch Ambassador in Washington, visit the Military Air Command (MAC) at Scott AFB, and get it done!”
He assigned the Vice President of International Affairs to the team and we started to plan our visits to the various U.S. Government Agencies. After several days, we were able to establish appointments in Washington, and with various officers at Scott Air Force base.
After speaking to them, we quickly learned from MAC that many U.S. carriers could not provide enough airplanes to carry cargo to the middle east as it would severely disrupt their network, and MAC was loo king for a way to approach their allies as well as European and Asian carriers. .In the meantime, we did a ”dog and pony” show in the USA as we spoke to several Generals and Colonels at the Pentagon and Scott Air Force base, by trying to convince them to consider Martinair’s cargo fleet.
It had never been done before and there was quite a concern about the reaction of Congress, the complicated regulatory prerequisites & protocol, as well as push-back by the U.S carriers and their unions.
However, Martinair had taken the initiative and MAC became interested in talking to us. They quickly dispatched a team to Holland and visited KLM and MP (KLM at that time owned 50% of Mat1inair). They reviewed the fleet of Martinair, looked at their financial records, the maintenance programs and considered the regulatory process.
MAC realized that Martinair could supply the additional lift and was a very reliable company. Our maintenance records were excellent and better yet, MP owned brand-new American manufactured airplanes.
Yet, there was another complication, as it was difficult for the U.S. Government to dispatch funds and payments to a foreign carrier. Furthermore, there was not sufficient time to obtain wavers or permission since supplies and troops had to be moved quickly.
The payment issue was resolved whereby monetary donations of a foreign government, who could not dispatch troops to the conflict, could be accepted as payment.
Hence, it became a “tripartite” arrangement, as Martinair would fly the cargo missions, the U.S. Government had made the agreement and the Asian Government would make the payments to Martinair. In addition, the U.S. Government took over the war-risk insurance, and guaranteed the fuel supply.
When all the parties reach agreement, contracts were signed and Martinair started flying for the U.S. Government.
The Cargo consisted mostly of “sustainment goods” or general cargo, as it was called, and about 100 plus missions were flown from various U.S. Air Force bases to Germany and to the Middle East. At the same time the U.S. Government used the Rotterdam harbor to dispatch large amounts of troops to Europe by naval ships. MP was hired to supply the catering by their food factories upon arrival before the troops were dispatched by rail to Germany.
It was a major effort by Martinair’s staff, clearly inspired by Martinair’s President and founder Martin Schröder, who never took a “no” for an answer.
Martin Schröder always had a “healthy disregard for the impossible”.
The 1991 Martinair annual report shows a FL75* “Million gross profit and a FL52 Million net profit, an increase of 83% over the year 1990. The flexibility of the airline, the clear vision of Martin Schröder and his staff, strategically taking advantage of the changes in the world arena, has always has served Martinair well. (*FL are Dutch Guilders)
Recently I met Asst. Professor Pete Russo of Vaughn Aviation College where I am on the advisory board. He approached me and asked if I worked for Martinair? I said yes and he explained to me that in 1991 he was a Colonel in the US Air Force and was assigned as the Chief Department of Defense Air Carrier Survey Officer.
He said; “Henk I went with my air force team to Schiphol Airport and met your CEO Martin Schröder at his office. We admired the view at the tarmac with all the MP aircraft lined up, and I approved the cargo arrangements on behalf of the U.S. Government.
He was impressed with the dynamic s of the company and the excellent maintenance records; but more so, he was totally impressed with Martin Schröder’s attitude.
Wow, what a small world.