Published in August 2015 issue

With 99 years of history under its belt, this airport could be considered the pride of every Dutchman. Excellent reviews from world travelers and the aviation photography community have consistently placed it among the world’s best. Welcome to Schiphol.

By Enrique Perrella

Elevations below sea level prevail in the Netherlands, a country created where once only water existed. Since the 16th century, over 18% of the country’s surface has been man-made, the land reclaimed from water and crafted into what are known as polders. Today, over 50% of the country’s land exceeds one meter above sea level, making the English saying “God created the world but the Dutch created Holland” tremendously accurate.

Sitting on the Haarlemmermeer polder in a northern province of the Netherlands is one of the most efficient and fascinating of airports, one of the world’s top-15 in both traffic and efficiency. Amsterdam-Schiphol (AMS) is not only distinctive in itself, but also a factor in the growth of the world’s oldest airline, KLM.

Airways was invited to tour this magnificent airport’s facilities, and to discover the 99 years of fascinating story behind it. We saw how much AMS has grown, how interconnected it is with commuters, business, and everyday life in the Netherlands, and how great the airfield is for shooting photos.

SCHIPHOL: ‘THE SHIP’S HELL’

The Haarlemmermeer polder used to be a lake that lied between the cities of Haarlem, Leiden and Amsterdam—a reclaimed area set to protect the surrounding cities from flooding. “It was like a big lake with a lot of wind, where ships came in,” said Ad van Aken, a veteran KLM Flight Attendant and spokesman. “There are many theories of why this airport was given the name Schiphol. The first and most commonly repeated is that heavy thunderstorms, strong winds and shallow waters claimed numerous ships, gaining the former lake the infamous nickname of Ship Grave. But there’s a problem with this story: many decades later, when the Haarlemmermeer Lake was reclaimed, no actual shipwrecks were found at the bottom,” he noted.

“I believe the Schiphol name comes from the fact that many ships docked in this area and people therefore called it a Shipping Corner, or ‘Schip-hol.’ Had we indeed called it Ship’s Hell,” he said, “no passengers would ever fly here!”

This airport started in 1916 as a military base in the middle of World War I. Four years later, the first batch of civil aircraft began operating in and out of the below-sea-level airfield. At the same time, the aviation industry flourished in this region as the aircraft manufacturer Fokker opened a factory in the vicinities of the airfield, and KLM was founded in 1919. The airport was small; in the mid-1920s, fewer than 20 passengers per day were being transported out of it.

DUTCH GROWTH, DEVELOPMENT, AND INNOVATION

By the early 1940s, Schiphol had grown to the point of having four asphalt runways of at least 3,000ft (914m) in length, all strategically oriented at 45-degree angles to deal with the region’s constantly variable winds. But it was heavily bombed during World War II and damaged so severely that it was rendered useless.

Schiphol’s postwar restoration was long and tedious. By the mid-1950s, the government approved a large project to build the country’s main airport and, a few years later, in 1963, construction started on a new terminal. That lasted almost four years until the building’s grand opening in 1967.

As the jet engine era soared, so did the civil aviation industry in Europe. “Schiphol increased its terminal area by almost twice its size during the 1970s, recording seven million passengers transiting through the terminals during the last years of that decade,” said van Aken. “Originally, the new airport had three piers (concourses), and has grown today to have eight.”

He pointed to a beautiful 331ft (101m) tall building. “That Air Traffic Control tower was completed in 1991,” he said. “The former tower, which is today an aviation-themed restaurant, was so small in comparison to the airport’s size that it was practically impossible to see most of the air traffic.”

Now, several extensions later, Schiphol occupies over 3,000ha (7,400ac) of land, and stands as one of the world’s largest and most important airports (fifth-largest in Europe in terms of passengers), managing to log over 55 million passengers in 2014—a 5% increase on the previous year, which succeeded in breaking its own record.

Schiphol is today a major passenger and cargo hub, boasting a convenient semi-circular terminal design, a world-class underground shopping center, a branch of the famous Rijksmuseum, a casino, well-being centers, an airport park, a high-speed train station, and the world’s first airport library. With over 131 intercontinental and 186 European scheduled destinations, and moving over 1.6 million tons of freight, it is also the third busiest cargo airport in Europe, behind Paris (CDG) (1.89 million) and Frankfurt (FRA) (2 million).

“Schiphol is arguably the world’s first true airport city,” said Tim de Groot, a world-class photographer—and a local who very frequently flies through his hometown airport. “It is an airport where people come not just to fly, but to shop, dine, and transfer on their daily commute to work. It’s much more than just an airport. It has a real closeness to many people in nearby communities, making it fairly unique in the world.

It is an integral part of the surrounding cities.” Home to KLM and its subsidiary KLM Cityhopper, Arke, Corendon Dutch Airlines, Martinair Cargo, Transavia, and even the SkyTeam Alliance’s main offices, Schiphol logged over 409,000 scheduled aircraft movements in 2014, moving more than 37 million passengers within Europe and almost 17 million to intercontinental destinations.

According to de Groot, Schiphol sits behind London Heathrow (LHR), FRA, and CDG in terms of both traffic volume and variety. “KLM and its attractive color scheme, however, makes Schiphol slightly more appealing than other airports filled with boring Eurowhite schemes,” he said. “So, in that sense, it does make up for having fewer airlines around.”

AMS is also the only airport in the world to have given nicknames to each of its six runways: Kaagbaan (06/24), Buitenveldertbaan (09/27), Aalsmeerbaan (18L/36R), Zwanenburgbaan (18C/36C), Oostbaan (04/22), and Polderbaan (18R/36L). The latter—the airport’s longest and furthest runway (4.3 miles north of the Control Tower)—is reached with taxiing times of over 20 minutes from the terminals. Its name was decided via a contest coming from the word Polder, where the airport is situated.

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A BUSINESS-ORIENTED AIRPORT

Van Aken believes Schiphol’s business-oriented culture is extremely important for the airport’s operations, as 31% of its traffic is solely traveling on business purposes. “We have the World Trade Center buildings attached to our terminals, along with two upscale hotels, a Sheraton, and a new Hilton,” he notes. “Many businesses have opened their offices around us.”

Moreover, on the airside of the terminal (past security control) are two additional hotels—the Mercure and Yotel. “People who wish to stay inside the airport and don’t want to go into the city to save themselves the hassle of going through security can stay at these two excellent hotels,” van Aken said. “And, if you don’t want to overnight, but just take a shower during a long layover, it can be done for as little as €15 (US$17).”

Then there’s the Schiphol Plaza, a large shopping center located in front of the terminal, resting below an impressive grass roof. The spokesman claims the airport is highly advanced in green energy, mostly drawn from the sun and other renewable sources.

“Many people come from the city to shop at the Plaza,” van Aken enthuses. “It may sound silly but, as the weather can change so much in this part of the world, many use the convenient train station below to come shopping away from the freezing temperatures in the city.” This stunning shopping center offers a large variety of shops and restaurants, including a wonderful airline-themed gift store called Planes@Plaza; this is hard to miss, given the large DC-10 engine, Boeing 747 landing gear, and front section of a DC-9 fuselage sitting in front of it.

As for as ground transportation, de Groot believes that’s one thing many non-locals take for granted. “The trains take you to the center of Amsterdam in only 20 minutes,” he said. “From Schiphol, you can take direct trains to most large Dutch cities, as well as high-speed connections to many European cities.”

A curious fact about Schiphol is that it doesn’t have any domestic flights, with zero passengers transported out of this airport via air in 2014, making ground transportation paramount for domestic travelers.

MIXING BUSINESS

With tens of millions of passengers flying through AMS in 2014, the airport experience must be seamless and efficient for each and every traveler. It is conveniently divided in two main sections—Schengen and non-Schengen.

“One aspect I love about flying through AMS is its signage,” said de Groot. “It’s so well designed that you never really have to think about where you are going. This may sound insignificant, but it also really helps transferring at the airport.”

Schiphol is also home to many low-cost carriers. Both Transavia and easyJet have based their operations in Pier H. “The low-cost carrier (LCC) segment demanded Schiphol to build an exclusive terminal for them with the typical offerings these airlines give to its passengers,” said van Aken. “This pier, purposely built without jet bridges, shops, or toilets, was constructed following the airlines’ specifications. Passengers come in at the last minute to board their flights and leave.”

LCCs marked a 10.3% share of the total airline segment at AMS in 2014. With SkyTeam members (especially the Air France-KLM group) practically owning the market (66.3% share), budget airlines have tried to increase their presence, though larger legacy airlines are predominant at this airport.

Turning from low-cost to upscale, van Aken stressed how Schiphol has chosen a path different to that of other European airports by adding entertainment options that go well beyond pubs.

“Schiphol became the first airport to offer its passengers an airport library, a casino and a museum. Everything can be found in the Holland Boulevard. Sometimes, passengers don’t have enough time to experience all the airport’s offerings, and that’s a good thing,” he said with enthusiasm.


 

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A CENTRAL SECURITY CHECKPOINT

As part of an experience improvement program and after many frequent travelers had found the former layout troublesome, Schiphol switched from gate security checkpoints to a centralized screening system.

“Previously, security checkpoints were located at the gates, and these have now disappeared to give space to five central locations—three in the departure halls and two where all transfer passengers walk through,” said van Aken.

“On top of this, passengers are offered an exclusive membership program called Privium, which is a frequent traveler card that not only expedites passing through security by scanning the eye’s iris, but also offers access to dedicated ClubLounges, priority parking close to the terminal, and what they call ‘fast border passage.’”

A NEW TERMINAL, DELAYED UNTIL 2021

Despite Schiphol’s passenger growth of almost 5% in 2014, it lost its fourth place in Europe’s Top-10 list to fast-growing Istanbul-Ataturk (Airways, May 2015). Hoping to bounce back, AMS announced that it would build a new terminal “to expand the capacity of the airport and to ensure the continuity of high-quality services.” According to the statement, the new Pier A will be situated to the west of Pier B and connected to the south side of the existing terminal.

In April 2015, Schiphol postponed the expansion of the new terminal. Initially scheduled to open in 2018, it will now be opened in 2021.

KLM & SCHIPHOL: SUCCESS

When it comes to working together, there’s no question about the big role played by Schiphol in KLM’s success over the airline’s 95 years of history. Frank Houben, KLM Marketing Director, confirmed this to Airways. “Schiphol and KLM are constantly working together to improve the passenger experience,” he said. “Both entities constantly join forces to offer the passengers the best possible service, while keeping the airport’s image in line with each of our strategies.”

Nowadays, airlines rely on ultra-efficient airports to offer competitive services to their passengers. Swiss, for instance, relies on its Zurich Airport (ZRH) hub to offer an outstanding service, and KLM is no different with its AMS hub. The Dutch carrier operated 221,000 movements in 2014—almost 200,000 more than its closest competitors, Transavia and easyJet. However, last year’s punctuality figures dropped a couple of points compared to 2013’s, with 86.1% of flights arriving and 79% departing on time—statistics that are sure to improve in years to come.

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AN AIRPLANE-SPOTTING PARADISE

One of the most attractive of Schiphol’s features is its world-class airplane-spotting environment. In fact, many of the photos in our Arriving and Departing Shot pages have been captured at this site, showcasing some of the best natural scenery the aviation photography world has to offer. As Jelle Harberts, a Departing Shot photographer (Airways, July 2015), put it, “I like to photograph airplanes creatively. I don’t like snapping simple side-on shots, but something rather different… and Schiphol is perfect for it!”

AMS, in fact, is frequently mentioned as the world’s best airport for spotting. It offers stunning views with great opportunities to capture both heavy and regular aircraft without the need to face fences or large obstacles.

“Schiphol offers a perfect mix of three ingredients that makes it the best creative aviation photography airport in the world,” said de Groot. “First, AMS receives steady traffic during the day with a nice concentration of heavies at some key hours, especially in the early morning and early afternoon.”

Second, easy access. “Schiphol’s trademark ‘no fence policy’ makes shooting very easy. Also, you can pretty much shoot from all parts of the airport, as very little of it is blocked by buildings, roads, or fences.”

Third, Amsterdam’s changeable weather. “While the weather in the Netherlands may not be the best for lovers of sunshine, it does offer some great opportunities for aviation photography,” de Groot notes. “We have sunshine, rain, snow, hail, and every type of cloud imaginable. This mix leads to a number of diverse opportunities that you may not get at airports that have a more stable climate.”

According to de Groot, some of the best locations are around Kaagbaan (Runway 06/24). “Here, sunrises/sunsets, head-on takeoffs, banking and nice departing shots can be captured,” he noted. But, for the best spotting opportunities, Polderbaan (Runway 18R/36L), with unrestricted views along the entire runway, is hard to beat. During summer time, even restaurants and toilets are available in the area. However, the fact that there are so many operating runways at AMS may hinder the possibilities of capturing a desired airliner.

For a more comfortable experience, Schiphol has a superb viewing terrace on the terminal building, accessible at no cost. A sidelined KLM Fokker 100 aircraft is parked there for the visitors’ enjoyment along with restaurants and a small children’s park, welcoming families and aviation enthusiasts together.

SCHIPHOL SETTING THE PACE

Excellent reviews from world and business travelers and operators have consistently placed Schiphol among the world’s best airports. In fact, SkyTrax recently named it the world’s ninth-best airport in its Top-10 list of 2014, granting it a prestigious fourstar rating, a distinction that’s not expected to change anytime soon.

With KLM performing almost impeccably, the future at Schiphol couldn’t be any brighter. The superb results are evidence that the interaction between these two completely separate entities has brought shared benefits, setting the pace for even better years to come.

“Schiphol is something every Dutchman can be proud of and, for me, it’s a national symbol,” de Groot said. “Many people from around the world know Schiphol and hold it in high regard, and that’s thanks to the great job done by the airport’s management.”


 

Spotter Guide

Amsterdam Airport, Schiphol (AMS/EHAM)

Ams Planespotting Guide

When we say that Amsterdam is a big airport is not a euphemism. With six runways operating and plenty of locations around, the best transport choice for planespotters to get the best from the AMS experience is a car. Below, you will find some descriptions of the spots commonly used by planespotters.

  1. Panarama Terrace: The Panarama terrace is, of course, the most obvious location for planespotting at AMS. Located on the top of terminals 1 and 2, overlooks the ramps and offers good views and photographs of aircraft, and you may get shots and / or registrations easy. However, as it is too far from the runways you will not get any action photos.
  2. “Romeo” Apron: This is a nice location to catch landings on Runway 06, takeoffs from Runway 24 and see the movements at the cargo area (ladder required). When the sun is behind you, this place can be used all day long, but it is recommendable from halfway in the afternoon. Please have in mind that parking is allowed only in the designated spaces.
  3. Approach lights Runway 06: The so-called Kaagbaan spotting location is perhaps the most popular among planespotters. The view is awesome and head-on shots of departures via runway 24 are possible.
  4. West of Runway 36R: This location offers a full view of aircraft on final for Runway 36R. It is a good location for afternoon shots of landing traffic.
  5. East of Runway 36R: The location offers a full view of the aircraft on final for Runway 36R, and it’s one of the best morning spots at Schiphol.
  6. Schiphol Oost: AMS General Aviation area is a place easy to find and reach. However, ladders are needed to catch the GA traffic on the apron.
  7. Schipolweg between Runways 22 and 27: Walk along the Schipolweg until crossing the centerline to get the sun behind. This is a perfect location for short final shots.
  8. Parking lot at McDonald’s: One of the most famous locations in AMS as the fast-food restaurant has FIDS monitors showing the scheduled arrivals. This place is recommended for early morning operations and it is a great location for landings on Runway 27.
  9. Runway 18L: There are spots located along the circle road which offer a rather close view on traffic departing from the beginning of 18L, and offers good options for photos in the morning.
  10. Final Runway 18C: This is an amazing spotting location to catch belly shots when landing on Runway 18C (Zwanenburgbaan) until noon. If departures are from Runway 36C, you will be able to catch aircraft banking right just after takeoff.
  11. East of Runway 18R/36L (Polderbaan): Located in one of the dead ends of the IJweg, a small roundabout and verge provide a stunning view on Runway 18R/36L. When at the spot, never block the airfield gates and always stay clear of the farmland. Have in mind that departures are on 36L and landings on 18R.
  12. Threshold of Runway 18R: This is a perfect place for final shots. The spot is along the Schipholweg, and it is impossible to park on the shoulder. On the north side of the N232 there is a parallel road which can be used for parking.
  13. West of Runway 18R/36L (Polderbaan): Perhaps one of the most popular planespotting locations as it has a cycle / motorcycle path parallel along almost the entire length of the runway. Same parking rules and occur as in the East Polderbaan side. However, there is a parking lot at the middle of the runway in the Spottersplaats, which also offers a nearly unobstructed view of the Polderbaan. This is a great spot for touchdowns on Runway 18L or rotations from Runway 36L in the afternoons.