MIAMI — As KLM prepares to celebrate its 95th anniversary on October 7, join us as we look back at some of the highlights from the carrier’s rich history. KLM, whose initials represent the Dutch name Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij voor Nederland en Koloniën (Dutch Royal Airlines for the Netherlands and its colonies) was founded on October 7, 1919. The airline’s first flight took place on May 17, 1920 using a De Havilland DH-16 from London to Amsterdam. Today, as a subsidiary of the Air France – KLM Group holding company and a member of the SkyTeam alliance, KLM flies to over 90 destinations worldwide from its hub at Amsterdam’s Schipol International Airport.
KLM officially started scheduled service on April 4, 1921 using Dutch-made Fokker F-II and F-III aircraft. On October 1, 1924, the airline’s first intercontinental flight took place from Amsterdam to Batavia in modern-day Indonesia, a Dutch colony at the time, using a Fokker F-VII. This became a regular route in September 1929 and was the world’s longest scheduled route until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. In December 1933, KLM flew this service in record time (just over four days) in a Fokker-XVIII “Pelikaan” in order to get Christmas and New Year cards delivered in time by December 25.
In October 1934, a KLM Douglas DC-2, carrying passengers and cargo, won on handicap the MacRobertson Air Race from London to Melbourne, while coming in second to a single-seat DH 88 Comet. Its first transatlantic flight took place soon after in December 1934, when a Fokker F-XVIII “Snip” flew from Amsterdam to Curacao. KLM received the popular DC-3 in 1936 and was the only airline to fly the least known of the Douglas family – the DC-5.
World War II
On May 10, 1940, the German invasion of the Netherlands during World War II resulted in an interruption of service. Some of the KLM aircraft that were covering service to Australia and Indonesia at the time of the invasion were eventually used to evacuate people fleeing from Japanese aggression. Others were taken to England, where they flew for British Airways predecessor BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) during the war. In September 1945, one month after the end of the war, KLM resumed service, beginning with commercial flights in Europe. Scheduled service between Amsterdam and New York operated by a DC-4 commenced on May 21, 1946. By end of the decade, KLM flew two long-range, pressurized types (the DC-6 and the Lockheed Constellation) for routes to Africa, North America, South America, and the Caribbean. Its first short-range pressurized airplane was the Convair 240, which was used for European flights.
On December 31, 1953, founder and owner Albert Plesman died. This was also a period of economic difficulty for KLM and other airlines. As a result, the Dutch government increased its ownership stake to two-thirds, thereby nationalizing the carrier. However, the board of directors remained under the control of private shareholders. KLM flew its first polar route when it opened Amsterdam to Tokyo service on November 1, 1958 using a DC-7, which would become the last piston engine aircraft flown by the company.
The Jet Age
The Jet Age began for KLM with the delivery of the DC-8 in March 1960 but continued financial difficulties resulted in several leadership changes. In 1963 KLM president Horatius Albarda initiated a restructuring effort, which resulted in the reduction of staff and service. His successor sealed an agreement with the government to reinstate private ownership of the airline. By 1966, the government became a minority owner of KLM with a 49.5% stake, and that same year, the Douglas DC-9 joined the fleet to cover European and Middle Eastern routes.
KLM became a widebody operator in February 1971 with the introduction of the Boeing 747-200B. One year later, the DC-10 joined the fleet. The economic problems stemming from the 1973 oil embargo led to another government intervention that would eventually result in 78% state ownership by the end of the 1970s, while KLM still retained a private board. In 1975, the 747-200M “Combi”, which carried passengers in its front half, and freight in the rear was introduced. The company considers this an important milestone for its cargo operations. The addition of the “Combi” was also in response to a period of overcapacity.
The 1980s saw the introduction of additional 747 variants. In 1983, KLM and Boeing reached an agreement to convert some 747-200 aircraft into a new stretched upper deck (SUD) configuration. The process started in 1984 and finished in 1986, resulting in the 747-200SUD. The airline also took delivery of the 747-300, which already came with a SUD. And Airbus joined KLM’s widebody fleet with the introduction of the A310 in 1983. By 1986, the Dutch government still had majority ownership, but the stake was down to 54.8%. In 1989, future partner Northwest Airlines took delivery of the most advanced variant of the 747, the -400. KLM became a customer in June of that year and also acquired a 20% interest in Northwest, which it considered an important step toward the creation of a worldwide route network.
In December 1991, KLM became the first European airline to introduce a frequent flyer program – “Flying Dutchman”. In January 1993, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted KLM and Northwest antitrust immunity, allowing them to deepen their partnership. Eight months later, the airlines operated all their flights between the U.S. and Europe as part of a “joint venture”. KLM passed an important passenger numbers milestone in November 1993 when it carried more than ten million passengers in a single year. In March 1994, KLM and Northwest introduced a new harmonized class of service “World Business Class” on all intercontinental flights. Furthermore, KLM increased its Northwest stake to 25%. Throughout the 1990s KLM continued investing in other airlines with the acquisition of a 26% share of Kenya Airways. In August 1998, the airline became private again after it purchased all regular shares from the Dutch government. In 1999, KLM took delivery of its first Boeing 737 Next Generation, and today it operates the -700, -800, and -900 variants.
A new decade witnessed the first phase of a fleet renewal program and a major merger. In the first half of 2002 KLM ordered three 747-400ER freighters and eight 777-200ER passenger aircraft to replace its 747-300s. Two additional 777s would replace two MD-11s. Airbus was also part of the modernization plan with an order for six A330-200 planes. On September 30, 2003, KLM and Air France announced a merger plan in which both airlines would become subsidiaries of a larger holding company. The European Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice approved the merger in February 2004, and shareholders voted in support two months later. On May 5, 2004, the AIR FRANCE-KLM Group was born. The airlines retained their own brands operating out of their respective Amsterdam and Paris hubs. In September 2004, KLM and Northwest joined the SkyTeam alliance, which Air France was already a part of.
During the 2000s, KLM also took some innovative steps. In December 2006, it became the first airline in the world to introduce self-service transfer kiosks that allowed transfer passengers at Schiphol to print out their own boarding passes quickly and easily. In June 2007, the carrier partnered with the Worldwide Fund for Nature to limit carbon dioxide emissions. This effort earned KLM the title of “best in class” in terms of energy efficient flying among all the major international airlines.
On March 30, 2008 the Open Skies treaty went into effect, allowing airlines to fly freely between Europe and the U.S. Two months later, the U.S. DoT granted antitrust immunity to SkyTeam members KLM, Air France, Delta Airlines, and Northwest Airlines, allowing them to make better use of the treaty by streamlining activities and better attuning them to customer demands. KLM also continued to invest in other carriers. On December 31, 2008, it became a 100% owner of the Dutch cargo and charter airline Martinair and eventually absorbed the passenger portion. Moreover, Air France – KLM took a 25% stake in struggling Alitalia on January 12, 2009. The alliance with Northwest ended after its merger with Delta, but KLM and Delta, which has a strong partnership with Air France, continue to be part of a SkyTeam joint venture across the Atlantic.
The Present and Future
Today, KLM has three Dutch subsidiaries – KLM Cityhopper (its regional airline), Martinair, and charter carrier Transavia.com. It also has a 100% stake of Taiwan-based KLM Asia. The newest member of the fleet is the A330-300, which entered service in 2012. KLM has also received excellence recognition by winning the “Best Airline Staff Service” in Europe at the World Airlines Awards in 2012 and 2013. This award recognizes the combined service of airport and cabin staffs. Furthermore, “Flying Blue”, the combined AIR FRANCE-KLM loyalty program won “Airline Program of the Year [Europe/Africa]” at the 2014 Freddie Awards. In 2012, KLM flew 25,774,000 passengers, and in 2013 the number rose to 26,581,000. Finally, KLM will introduce a new generation of aircraft to its fleet with the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in 2015 and the Airbus A350-900 in 2019.