AMSTERDAM — An airline’s primary purpose is to safely transport you between two points, but some airlines can go above and beyond. Would you be surprised if a flight attendant leaned across the aisle and gifted you a porcelain replica of your own home?
That’s just the shock that Erik Harverkorn felt when he received a porcelain replica of his home (albeit not aboard an airplane), which was once the residence of Dutch aviation pioneer, Anthony Fokker.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is one of the remaining carriers to dish out more than just a glass of wine and filet mignon in business class. On intercontinental World Business Class flights, KLM gives passengers a porcelain Delftware miniature Dutch house, which is a tradition that the airline has held since 1950.
As the oldest airline in the world (KLM turns 98 this month), the carrier releases a new model on its anniversary week and has unknowingly created a cult following for these houses, which are actual replicas of Dutch buildings such as Harverkorn’s home. Most have strong and important links with Dutch history.
Collectors scour eBay, antique shops, and garage sales to complete their lineup of houses, which is easily managed by a mobile app that is so popular it was just updated with technology that recognizes each house with the snap of a picture.
How does the airline choose which house to unveil each year?
People from the Netherlands can apply to have their historic home considered to be a KLM house. The airline has a team focused on choosing the next year’s house, and the top-secret decision isn’t even known to the homeowners themselves.
KLM’s choice of Anthony Fokker’s Haarlem home (he’s kind of like the Orville and Wilbur Wright of the Netherlands) is quite fitting. Anthony Fokker’s company produced a fleet of Fokker aircraft that eventually flew all over the globe including for North American airlines like American and Piedmont. KLM will retire the last of its Fokker planes by the end of October.
Among the most popular Fokker aircraft were the Fokker 70 and Fokker 100 jets, which filled a niche for airlines seeking planes within the sub-100 seat category. Other models flown until recently include the Fokker 50, which had a distinctive pointy nose that could be spotted at airfields around the world.
At the unveiling ceremony in Saint Bavo Church in Haarlem’s main square (tickets are almost impossible to get unless you’re one of KLM’s top frequent fliers or invited personally by the mayor, for example), guests were treated to a display of pomp and circumstance.
Flight attendants in the airline’s signature blue uniform passed through the crowd with light bites (including the airline’s famous “Flying Burger”) served in its Marcel Wanders china.
Displays were set up in various naves of the church showing off the different meal presentations the airline serves on various routes and in different cabins. Especially popular was the set up showing the airline’s new dine-on-demand service, which features special plates that allow the crew to present food restaurant-style.
Following speeches from dignitaries, the main event had arrived, and the unveiling was as dramatic as could be. A drone, adorned with dozens of blue and white balloons, descended across the crowd, past stained-glass windows, and between golden chandeliers to deliver the first KLM house to the mayor of Haarlem, Jos Wienen, and the second house to Harverkorn.
One of the original “avgeeks,” Anthony Fokker grew up in Harverkorn’s current home and is said to have flown his first paper airplane out of the attic window. It’s quite fitting that the house plays such a prominent role in KLM’s collection.
With the latest app, collectors can snap a photo of their house to automatically add it to their inventory. House number 98 will surely command a hefty premium on eBay. Insider tip: some of the houses have corks inside (later discontinued), which makes them more valuable if you’re trying to buy or sell one. Turn the house upside down to discover the year that the house was produced; the older they are, the more valuable they are.
KLM produces one million porcelain houses per year with about 800,000 making their way into the suitcases of fliers (the airline makes enough for its fleet size and route network, but passenger demand typically determines the number actually gifted).
Each flight is loaded with a box of several dozens, and the range of numbers can vary per flight. The contents are listed on the outside of the box (for example, 1-30), which is how flight attendants can indicate to frequent fliers the range of numbers available on board.
Don’t fret, if you get a house you already have, you can always exchange it in the lounge in Amsterdam. A staff member carefully guards a full collection that is available to trade with travelers on a daily basis at any given time.
The houses are so popular that the airline receives regular social media and email requests with pleas for one from people saying things like they can’t afford a business class ticket or have a personal connection to one of the houses in the collection.
Among the collectors are KLM’s CEO Pieter Elbers who has the complete collection and the Dutch king Willem Alexander who reportedly also has the complete collection arranged in neighborhoods and streets.
By the way, the Dutch king is also an employee of KLM flying the Fokker 70 aircraft around Europe until its retirement at the end of October. Don’t worry, he won’t be out of work. Instead, he will fly the Boeing 737.
Why are these houses so popular?
For starters, they are only available on KLM flights unless you find one in antique stores or eBay. Plus, they contain Dutch gin inside adding to their value. According to Elbers, collecting these houses is half the fun, and he always is amused by seeing fellow business travelers who traverse the globe when they get so excited about adding a new house to their collection.
Want a model of your own house? The airline has been known for special promotions where travelers can produce replicas of their homes using a 3-D printer to craft a plastic house model.
It’s quite expensive for an airline to give such a gift on long-haul flights to business class fliers. When asked if KLM would ever consider discontinuing the houses due to cost or excess weight on the plane, the answer was a firm no. The enthusiasm among fliers and collectors is too valuable of a bonus to ditch them.
KLM has been known to retire fleet from its aircraft with great fanfare, and the dedication of the Fokker home will carry on the legacy of these aircraft. Anthony Fokker would be proud.