Deep Dive: The Story Behind KLM Asia

Deep Dive: The Story Behind KLM Asia

DALLAS – The national flag carrier of the Netherlands and the world’s oldest airline, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL), is one of the most iconic carriers not only due to its prestige but also to its legendary blue livery.

Since 1971, the bright blue fuselage of all KLM planes has been flying across the world along with the famous royal Dutch crown, representing the nationality and origins of the carrier.

However, when we take a closer look at some aircraft, we can identify something interesting. There are nine Boeing 777s that are not painted like the rest of the KL fleet. The crown has disappeared and a large “ASIA” brand is now showing itself in the tail of these airplanes.

Today we’ll explore the story behind KL’s subsidiary KLM Asia, its origins, why it was created, the main differences with its parent company, and its relevance in commercial aviation today.

Taiwan is home to two of the largest Asian airlines: EVA Air and China Airlines, which serve as key carriers to connect passengers to and from Taipei. Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

Early History

KLM Asia is a small wholly-owned subsidiary of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines registered in Taiwan. The airline was founded and established in October 1995 with a sole objective; flying passengers from Amsterdam to the capital, Taipei.

Why would a large airline like KLM set up a subsidiary on the other side of the world to operate flights to Taiwan, instead of using its own aircraft and KLM brand?

Taiwan is a very special territory that, at the moment, is not recognized by the People’s Republic of China. These two countries fought a brutal civil war between 1927 and 1949 which resulted in cultural and political differences that split the country and forced the exile of the former government to Taiwan.

Today, both Taiwan and the PRC claim the entire territory of China (Mainland and the Island of Taiwan), as their own territory and only country, which has created a worldwide political division about which of the two governments should be recognized over the other.

As the years passed by, the People’s Republic of China gained a powerful economic position and threatened all countries that recognized Taiwan as a sovereign territory with restrictions and sanctions.

Among those sanctions, one of the most influential for airlines was the ban on overflying and serving flights to all cities in Mainland China, such as Beijing (PEK) or Shanghai (PVG). This was a very big hit for European carriers, as they were about to lose a very important share of their Asian market by giving away so important destinations like PEK or PVG.

Because of that, and in order to maintain the possibility to fly to Taipei (TPE), a very profitable destination for KL, the Dutch carrier decided to create a subsidiary registered in Taiwan, which would separately operate flights from Amsterdam to Taipei to avoid any sanctions imposed by China.

The Boeing 747-400 had a very important role in the development of KLM Asia. 7 of them flew with the subsidiary until 2017. Photo: Sharon Hahn Darling (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fleet, Operations

To comply with the objectives set by KL for operating successful flights to Taiwan, KLM Asia needed to adopt a series of restrictions to their operations in terms of routes and aircraft usage.

First of all, all KLM flights from Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport (AMS) to Taipei-Taoyuan Airport (TPE) must have been operated by KLM Asia aircraft on all occasions, without exceptions. Additionally, no KLM Asia airplane had permission to overly Chinese airspace en route to Taipei. This was a major inconvenience, as the shortest route between the two cities flew directly over China.

Because of that, the initial flights required a regularly scheduled stop at Bangkok-Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) in Thailand. Today the stopover city has been changed to Seould-Incheon Airport (ICN), but for a different reason. This, however, did not mean that KLM Asia planes could not be used on other KLM-branded flights.

This was a normal sight as these aircraft were actually based in Amsterdam and not Taipei. Of course, all flights operated by KLM Asia, no matter the destination, could not fly over or end up in mainland China.

KLM Asia began operating in October 1995 with the transfer of 4 Boeing 747-400 Combi airplanes, which were special in the way that they could fly fewer passengers and more cargo by dividing the cabin depending on demand. Three more units were added in May 1999, April 2002, and December 2009, adding up to a total of 7 Jumbo Jets.

The Boeing 747 was crucial in KLM Asia’s operations, but with the rise of fuel costs and the high age of the airplane, the last unit was retired from service in October 2017.

The backbone of the fleet, however, which today is the only aircraft that remains in KLM Asia’s operations, is the Boeing 777. The subsidiary received from its parent company nine units (Seven Boeing 777-200ERs and two Boeing 777-300ERs), which arrived between February and July 2012, coinciding with the retirement of the first Boeing 747 of KLM Asia in January 2012.

The main difference between the KLM Asia livery and its mother company was the removal of the royal Dutch crown to avoid any controversy. Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Main Differences With KLM

With the creation of KLM Asia, all aircraft transferred to this subsidiary needed to undergo a series of esthetical modifications in order to erase the most amount of reminders of the Netherlands country and royal crown. By doing that, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines could defend itself from any potential restriction imposed by China by saying that KLM Asia was not Dutch but Taiwanese, even though it shared a base and basic livery with its mother company.

The first and most significant modification in KLM Asia’s livery is the removal of the royal Dutch crown from KLM’s logo both in the tail and front part of the fuselage, which was then substituted with the word “ASIA”. The crown is one of the most iconic symbols not only of the airline but also of the entire Netherlands. And, being this symbol a political sign, it was necessary for KLM to remove it before commencing operations from Amsterdam to Taipei.

Also, when we take a closer look at the rear part of the fuselage, we can notice that the registrations of all aircraft in the KLM Asia fleet lack the Netherlands and European Union flags. This, once again, was made to eliminate any relations with the origin country of the airline.

Right now, the only real unchangeable marks of the Netherlands country left in the airplanes are those registrations, as “PH-” is the registration prefix assigned to the country.

Further, to make KLM Asia more familiar to the Taiwanese people, all aircraft of the fleet feature, next to the logo on the fuselage, a translation of “KLM Airlines Asia” in Chinese for all Asian passengers taking the flight.

The rest of the logos and symbols are maintained like the Air France-KLM Group and Skyteam logos, as well as the iconic “The Flying Dutchman” slogan written at the rear of the fuselage of every aircraft.

Apart from the erasing of the royal Dutch crown from the livery, all KLM Asia planes also lack the Netherlands and European Union flags next to their registrations. Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

Current Operations

Moving forward in time till today, we can actually see that the KLM Asia subsidiary has now only remained in existence practically as a brand, as the carrier is no longer following any of the rules set by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines or the People’s Republic of China to prevent any issue with the grant of overflight and landing rights in the mainland.

Flights from Amsterdam to Taipei are today operated twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with an intermediate stop at Seoul-Incheon Airport (ICN) on both ways. KLM flight 845 departs Schiphol Airport at 17:30 and regularly flies over Chinese airspace not only with KLM Asia aircraft, but also with regular KLM Royal Dutch Airlines airplanes, which not always are Boeing 777-200s, but also Boeing 787-9s, of which none of them is owned by the subsidiary.

On the other hand, now that the Chinese Government has allowed intercontinental travel to the country and has uplifted most sanitary restrictions, KLM has resumed flights to the People’s Republic of China. Specifically, the airline now connects Amsterdam with Beijing (PEK), Shanghai (PVG), and Hong Kong (HKG) many times a week again.

These three routes are operated by Boeing 777 and 787 family aircraft, and the assignment of KLM Asia aircraft has been now also included. Since the start of flights to China, KLM Asia aircraft have landed on five separate occasions in the country.

The truth is that even though relations between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan remain broken and in big tension, in terms of commercial aviation everything has calmed down. Not only restrictions have been uplifted, but we can also see today dozens of China Airlines and EVA Air flights scheduled between Taiwan and China and vice versa on a daily basis.

Swissair Asia was also inaugurated for the same reason as KLM Asia: to secure its overflight and landing rights in the PRC. Photo: Aero Icarus (CC BY-SA 2.0)

KLM Asia Was Not Alone

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was not the only carrier that had the idea to establish a separate subsidiary to fly to Taiwan. The granting of overflight and landing rights in China has always had a very serious value for European airlines, and many of the made everything not to lose them. Here are some of the five carriers that ended up adopting this method.

Air France Asie (AF) operated flights from Paris to Taipei via Hong Kong on esthetically modified airplanes that had removed the red color of the tail logo, replacing it with the same blue as the rest. It operated Boeing 747-400s and Airbus A340-200s but ceased operations after flights to Taipei were canceled in 2004. Its cargo operations also stopped flying afterward in 2007.

Japan Asia Airways (EG) was founded in 1975, and it served as the subsidiary which operates flights for JAL from Tokyo (NRT), Osaka (KIX), and Nagoya (NGO) to Taipei. Its fleet received modifications like a logo change, both in the tail and fuselage, replacing the famous “JAL” with “JAA”. EG operated Boeing 747, 76, Douglas DC-8, and DC-10 aircraft prior to its merger with Japan Airlines (JL) in 2008.

Australia Asia Airlines (IM) served as the Taiwanese subsidiary of Qantas Airways (QF). With its small fleet of two Boeing 747SP and one Boeing 767, it operated flights from Australia to Taiwan from 1990 to 1996. Its livery and logo had much more drastic differences from its parent company, which did not conserve either the name or the characteristic kangaroo of QF.

British Asia Airways (BR) connected London Heathrow Airport (LHR) with Hong Kong and Taipei for eight total years since 1993. It operated an exclusive jumbojet fleet of 3 Boeing 747-400 painted in the “Landor” livery without the British coat of arms, but with the Chinese characters “Ying Ya”, meaning “British Asia”. It also stopped flying and merged with British Airways (BA) after the carrier ceased flights to Taipei in 2001.

Have you ever heard of these interesting subsidiaries? Feel free to comment with your opinion on this case and keep exploring the history of the airline industry with us!

Featured image: KLM Asia aircraft are a common sight at Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport. Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

Deputy Reporter - Europe & Middle East
Commercial aviation enthusiast from Madrid, Spain. Studying for a degree in Air Traffic Management and Operations at the Technical University of Madrid. Aviation photographer since 2018.

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