Published in April 2016 issue

The Dutch carrier introduces its first Boeing 787-9 to enthusiasts and VIPs with demo flights from Amsterdam.

By Andreas Spaeth

Founded in 1919, the Dutch national carrier KLM may be one of the world’s oldest airlines but, in the modern communications age, it has become one of the most social media savvy. In November 2014, KLM created a format to bid farewell to its last MD-11 (Airways, February 2015) as the last airline worldwide operating the tri-jet in passenger service. Later, within minutes, via Facebook and other channels, it managed to sell out three scenic one-hour farewell flights over Holland from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport for €111 per ticket. The airline made an effort to make the experience special—every passenger was given a specially branded gift bag and a commemorative book. The success, in terms of visibility and free PR, was huge—and it was achieved with an old aircraft. This time, the airline’s new flagship, its first Boeing 787-9, was coming in from Seattle, and KLM decided to draw on that earlier experience and set up a new version of the format, called Welcome Flights. On this occasion, the price for an Economy Class ticket was €149, but that didn’t deter aviation fans of all ages from buying their tickets as quickly as possible, resulting once again in three flights selling out in no time.

Sunday morning, November 22, 2015, I boarded a bus at Schiphol’s gate C2. Every passenger had received a ‘KLM 787 Dreamflight’ branded bag containing snacks, a cap, some other small items, and a safety card for the 787-9. As most of the people present were aviation enthusiasts, this was a very thoughtful inclusion, of little cost to the airline but of great value to collectors of all ages. As with the MD-11 a year earlier, the aircraft was parked at the far end of the cargo apron, again close to KLM’s historic DC-3. This gave passengers a very welcome opportunity to board the Dreamliner by stairs and take lots of photos, videos, or selfies on the way. KLM had taken delivery of the factory-fresh 787-9 only a week before, from Paine Field (PAE) in Everett, Washington, where Boeing’s wide-body factory is located. The delivery itself had been rather low-key, with only CEO Pieter Elbers and some resident staff riding home on the new flagship. But a week later, on this November Sunday afternoon, Elbers was joining the last of the three Welcome Flights, and he had some prominent peers on board with him, such as Alexandre de Juniac, Chairman and CEO of Air France/KLM (AF/KL), his predecessor as KLM’s CEO, Peter Hartman, as well as the top brass of their Delta Air Lines SkyTeam partners.

This particular Dreamliner was registered PH-BHC. It was to be followed by PH-BHA (which was delivered in December 2015) and then PH-BHD (February 2016) through to PH-BHX. There won’t be a PH-BHB, as this registration had previously been granted to a Dutch hot-air balloon.

This first KLM Dreamliner was christened Zonnebloem (Sunflower). All 21 Dreamliners that will make up KLM’s future 787 fleet will be named after flowers, one of the Netherlands’ most successful export products. KLM was only the second airline within the SkyTeam alliance, after Vietnam Airlines (VN), to put the lengthened 787 into service.

About a dozen airlines now operate the 787-9, the first of which was delivered to Air New Zealand (NZ) in June 2014. KLM will operate 15 of the type and, as a result of an adjustment to an existing order in August 2015, six of the longer 787-10, which will start to arrive in 2020. AF has ordered 13 Boeing 787-9s and will get three more from leasing companies. That’s the plan, at least.

“As we are currently in talks with our Pilots,we might have to downsize, meaning to defer 787 orders, [but] currently we are supposed to get our first one in November 2016,” AF/KL boss Alexandre de Juniac said to Airways on board the first KLM Dreamliner. Originally, in December 2011, the group had ordered 25 787- 9s: 13 intended for the French carrier and 12 for the Dutch one. It then signed a lease agreement with AerCap for 12 additional aircraft (three for AF, nine for KL) to accelerate the type’s entry into the fleet. De Juniac stressed that the aircraft— which have the same configuration and seats, and just differ in their finishes—can be interchanged between both carriers. Should AF not take up all the 787s it has planned to acquire, he said, some could be diverted to KL instead.

[tribulant_slideshow gallery_id=”64″]

KLM’s Elbers, the host of this flight, was delighted about his new flagship, having just tried it out on the ride home from Seattle. “It’s replacing the Airbus A330 and Boeing 747- 400 Combi in our existing fleet and is thus a very important step in our fleet change program,” he told Airways in an exclusive interview on board the Boeing 787-9. “The customer experience in the 787 is a very different thing, the altitude, the cabin atmosphere—after a long flight, you arrive much more refreshed and relaxed.”

Even in times of cheaper oil, the Dreamliner’s low fuel consumption is a huge advantage. Overall, KLM said, the 787 burns 20% less fuel. “The benchmark in fuel consumption was the Boeing 767-400ER; the 787 is a new generation aircraft but, even compared to the 777-200ER the Dreamliner is a much more fuel-efficient aircraft,” Elbers said with enthusiasm. In fact, 21% more efficient, according to KLM figures. Also according to the carrier, the 787-9 is 28.4% more fuel efficient than the Boeing 747-400, of which it still operates five, and even more compared to the MD-11, which was phased out a year earlier.

The last airline to let the tri-jet go, KLM is also the last operator of the venerable Boeing 747-400M Combi with main deck cargo compartment; its 16 aircraft, which have an average age of about 22 years, are being gradually phased out while the first Dreamliners come in. With KLM’s latest World Business Class lie-flat product, the Combi offers 268 seats, compared to the 294 of the Boeing 787-9, which, according to the carrier, is also a whopping 46% more fuel efficient. The next step in this fleet renewal will be the replacement of KLM’s regional fleet, operated by KLM Cityhopper (WA). The new aircraft—15 E175s—will join the current KLM Cityhopper Embraer fleet (currently standing at 28 E190s), and will replace the last 19 80-seater Fokker 70s. This will also result in a reduction in overall fuel consumption, as the newest generation of E175s is 6.4% more fuel efficient than previous models.

These numbers would make any airline CEO smile. No wonder Elbers was in an upbeat mood on that afternoon dedicated to the 787.

“It’s very important to maintain our flights to places where we fly the 747 Combis today, like Incheon Airport in Korea, or Los Angeles,” he said. “With the 787-9, we could both replace the Combis and put additional flights in, if the markets warrant it.”

The first revenue flight of the new KLM flagship took place on November 23, 2015, when it operated the Abu Dhabi (AUH) service, via Bahrain (BAH). As the aircraft has a maximum range of about 9,400 miles (15,100km), it could be deployed on ultra-long-haul nonstop services. Elbers denied that KLM is planning to introduce new destinations specifically tailored for the 787’s capabilities, but said: “We have Lima and Singapore, these are long, but not ultra-long-haul routes. It could operate there. But it will be deployed throughout our network. We start with Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, but also go to Canada and China and across the network.”

April 2016Add to cart | View Details

KLM has made smart use of the Dreamliner cabin. The first compartment consists of 30 lie-flat Zodiac Cirrus seats, customfinished by Dutch designer Hella Jongerius and offering a 42 inch (109cm) pitch. Space in the 787s is a bit tighter than it is in KLM’s 777s, and seat dimensions therefore had to be adapted, but they still feel roomy and spacious. The seats are installed in a 1-2-1 row configuration, with the window seats facing outward. Many other airlines, from Air India (AI) to Oman Air (WY), only offer a 2-2-2 layout in Business Class.

“We also considered six seats per row, but wanted to provide direct aisle access for everyone,” Elbers explained. Commonality with partner Air France was also an objective. “Our Business Class seats are 90% common,” he said, “only the walls on Air France are a bit higher and we use different materials.” A very special material is used for the carpets installed in all KLM aircraft: a fiber consisting partly of discarded KLM uniforms.

Every passenger in the two middle Business Class seats has a small stowage compartment—with a mirror inside—to store smartphones, glasses, or a water bottle. The Business Class galley boasts an espresso machine, and all galleys use new catering equipment, including steam ovens and trolleys decorated with images of Delft-blue houses (that are also printed on the lavatory wallpaper) that were designed by Hella Jongerius. Stoppers and rubber elements in the galleys ensure that there is less noise to annoy passengers.

Behind the Business cabin there are 48 35-inch (89cm) pitch seats in Economy Comfort, and then 216 Economy seats pitched at 31 inches (79cm), both in a 3-3-3 configuration. New to all Economy seats are bigger IFE HD touchscreens (that are now 11” wide), power sockets for all passengers, and a much wider recline—40% wider, in fact. In Business Class, the screens are a massive 16 inches wide, all featuring fascinating interactive 3D moving maps, including a cockpit view with all the relevant instruments showing actual real-time flight data such as altitude and speed. Should anyone wish to engage and interact with passengers seated elsewhere on the aircraft, a ‘Seat Chat’ function is built into the IFE system. The entertainment system not only offers over 200 movies and 200 TV programs, but also gives the option of watching or listening to one’s own content via USB ports in all seats.

An absolute novelty for KLM is the 787 fleet-wide offering of inflight WiFi connectivity. The Dutch airline has been a late arrival, as its management had judged the previously existing offerings to be insufficiently reliable. Hence, just one KLM aircraft (Boeing 777-300ER registered PH-BVF) had so far been equipped to remain connected in flight.

[tribulant_slideshow gallery_id=”65″]

“All 787s come equipped with a Panasonic WiFi system using Ku-band satellite technology, which is more mature now,” Elbers said. As opposed to other airlines—such as Lufthansa, which offers a time-based pricing system—KLM rolls out a less passenger-friendly data traffic-based pricing, also offered, for example, by Singapore Airlines (SQ), which makes it difficult for users to estimate how much they might end up paying. “Charging by data volume is the right thing to do,” the KLM CEO insisted. “If everyone starts to download movies, you’ll get a whole different thing.” For up to 40MBs of data downloaded, KLM charges €9.95; for up to 120MBs, €19.95. Both deals have a validity of 24 hours from activation. KLM claims that voice over IP connections will be blocked, so no internet telephony, such as Skype, will be available. In practical terms, however, this is unlikely, as blocking these services would use up bandwidth, as demonstrated by Lufthansa’s (LH) FlyNet. The German airline also forbids the use of online voice services—but, technically, they are still available and many bloggers brag about how extensively they use them inflight. How KLM will handle this remains to be seen, but Elbers said that no decision has yet been made to retrofit the rest of KLM’s long-haul fleet with WiFi service.

As the 777 and 787 have a common type-rating, KLM Pilots will fly both types. Preparation for this has been underway for several years; since February 2015, the airline has introduced its own Dreamliner simulator, stationed at Schiphol-Oost (East) and nicknamed Vlijtig Liesje (Busy Lizzy), after another flower. Within three years, KLM expects to have trained more than 1,000 Pilots for the 777 and 787. Ultimately, the Dutch carrier is likely to train around 1,500 such Pilots.

But on that November afternoon, in the fully booked 787, most people were simply too excited with the experience of flying over Holland at the ultra-low altitude of just 2,500ft (762m) to care for such details. Despite the mixed November weather—some sun with rain and snow showers in between— the views were fabulous, the Dreamliner passing over huge, lit greenhouses—another Dutch landmark—then the city of Rotterdam, with its airport and famous Erasmus bridge, and a loop over the Zeeland island, with its long bridge to the mainland that is not unlike the access to the Florida keys.

Not everybody payed full attention to the sights, as off-duty KLM 777/787 Captain Bouke Rypma was acting as master of ceremonies in the cabin, moderating the flight over the PA and presiding over a quiz in Economy Class—the tempting prize being a high-quality model of the very aircraft the passengers were flying in. It was a tight race. “In the end, we had two contenders. The last question was to guess the exact takeoff speed—one guy said 142, the other 143kt,” Rypma reported. As it was 142kt (263kph), the winner was drawn easily, and a young Dutch enthusiast was the winner of the model. All too quickly, after just 56 minutes in the air, KLM’s first Dreamliner gently touched down back at Schiphol airport, taxiing a long way deliberately to show off the new flagship and then being greeted by the fire brigade’s water cannon salute. Most on board vowed that they would be back soon on a regular flight of this aircraft that elevates the experience to new levels.