KLM’s Potential Competitor: What Happened To Air Holland?

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In the aviation boom of the ’80s and ’90s, Europe saw plenty of new competitors emerging. One notable newcomer promised to give Dutch flag carrier KLM a run for its money but never seemed to realize its full potential. Air Holland was founded in 1984, but 20 years later, it ceased operating. What happened to Air Holland?

Air Holland 757
What happened to Air Holland? Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

Founding Air Holland

The man at the head of Air Holland was John Block. A son of a schoolteacher, he was born with a love of aviation in his heart. He applied to work with KLM after the war but wasn’t accepted. Instead, he joined the Dutch air force and became a pilot.

Having finished service with the air force, Block obtained a commercial aviation license. In partnership with Martin Schroder, he founded an airline called ‘Martin’s Air Charter,’ or MAC, with just one aircraft, a de Havilland Dove. After eight years of successful operation, the company was renamed Martinair.

Martinair still flies today, with its main base at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. It is a successful cargo airline and a subsidiary of the Air France-KLM Group.

Martinair Cargo 747
Martinair is still a success today. Photo: Pieter van Marion via Wikimedia

John Block exited Martinair in the ’60s but wasn’t done with aviation yet. Soon after leaving, he bought Transavia, building the company up from nothing to an airline with 45% of the Dutch holiday market over the next 10 years. He left that airline in 1975.

After dabbling in the business jet industry for a few years, he took the decision to return to commercial aviation. In 1984, he founded Air Holland.

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Stabbed in the back

John Block was keen to make Air Holland a true competitor to the incumbent flag carrier KLM. However, by now KLM owned a large share in Transavia, and between these two companies and Martinair, didn’t believe any more competition was required.

Air Holland 767
Transavia and KLM attempted to block Air Holland’s AOC. Photo: Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia

KLM, in partnership with Martinair and Transavia, moved to block the granting of the Air Operators Certificate for Air Holland. These airlines claimed the market could not sustain any more charter operators and did their best to convince the Civil Aviation Authority of the Netherlands, the Rijksluchtvaartdienst, not to grant it permission.

Indeed, it took five years for Air Holland to gain its AOC, but when it did, it was ready to take on the big boys.

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Air Holland’s fleet

Air Holland began operations with three Boeing 727s. The decision to operate these aircraft was interesting in itself, as it was a strategic move by the shrewd Block.

The granting of the AOC was on the condition that the airline operated mainly from regional airports, such as Maastricht or Rotterdam. The only exception to this rule was when the airline operated flights that required the longer runaways of Amsterdam.  For this reason, Block purposely selected the 727, which needed every inch of runway Amsterdam could provide.

Air Holland 727
There was a strategic reason for choosing the 727s. Photo:
Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia

Three years later, the aging 727s were replaced by modern Boeing 757s, but by this time, the airline was firmly ensconced at Schiphol. Over the next few years, the airline welcomed a total of 11 Boeing 757s, as well as four widebody 767s and three 737-300s.

The end of Air Holland

Air Holland ceased operations in 1991 due to financial difficulties. It had turned a profit the year before, but over the course of 1990, it lost 30 million Dutch Guilders, which would equate to around $28 million today. Block left the company, and control transferred to financial director A R Marx.

Marx got the airline flying again, with services taking off in December of 1991. However, it never fully recovered, instead limping along for another decade before falling into financial ruin again. Belgian entrepreneur Tony Gram allegedly acquired the airline in a debt-for-shares swap in 2002, but with the airline owning Eurocontrol some $1.2m in unpaid charges, there was no time or space to turn things around.

Air Holland 737
Air Holland folded for good in 2004. Photo: Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia

The airline closed its doors for the final time on 24th March 2004. Sadly, the airline exited amid allegations of corruption, drug smuggling and laundering of drug money through its books. It was almost fortunate that Block passed away in 1994 and didn’t have to witness what his ambitious airline had become.

Do you remember Air Holland? Let us know in the comments.

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