A Brief History Of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

When it comes to European hubs, different ones come to mind for different alliances. Frankfurt is key to Star Alliance thanks to German flag carrier Lufthansa’s extensive presence there. Meanwhile, oneworld is best represented by British Airways and Iberia at London Heathrow and Madrid Barajas respectively. As for SkyTeam, Paris CDG and Amsterdam Schiphol stand out through Air France and KLM. Let’s look at the history of the latter of these airports.

Amsterdam Schipol Airport
Schiphol’s history dates back as far as the First World War. Photo: Amin via Wikimedia Commons

The early years

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS) began its life as a military airfield during the First World War. It opened in this capacity in September 1916. As far as its name is concerned, the airport reports that it dates back to the 15th century when the area was rather different.

The name, at this time, referred to low lying wetland (‘hol’ or ‘holl’) from which people could collect materials with which to construct boats (‘schip’). This wetland was even a fully-fledged lake at times during its history. However, it was dredged in the 19th century for the construction of Fort Schiphol- one of several forts located around Amsterdam.

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Amsterdam Schipol Airport ATC Tower
Schiphol is in an area of reclaimed land that used to be a lake. Photo: Ikreis via Wikimedia Commons

After the First World War ended, civil aircraft were allowed to use the airfield from December 1920. This came a year after Fokker established a factory in the area in 1919. At this time, many people referred to the facility as ‘Schiphol-Les-Bains.’

The interwar period saw the airport grow, with the number of runways rising to four by 1940. These asphalt landing strips were rather short by today’s standards, with none reaching beyond a length of 1,020 meters. As we shall see, these have since grown hugely.

The Second World War, and afterward

The airport suffered greatly during the Second World War. The German military captured the facility in 1940, and renamed it Fliegerhorst (‘air base’) Schiphol. Despite decoy airfields being built nearby in an attempt to confuse bombers, it suffered heavy bombing.

Amsterdam Schipol Airport Old ATC Tower
Schiphol’s old ATC tower, as seen in 1960. Photo: Wouter Hagens via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, one such attack in December 1943 rendered it unusable as an airfield. As such, its German occupants only used it for emergency landings, before destroying what was left of it in September 1944. Despite this, it was operational once again within a year.

The first aircraft to land at Schiphol after its restoration at the end of the conflict was a Douglas DC-3, which touched down in July 1945. The airport grew quickly in the post-war era, starting with the construction of a new terminal building in 1949. This development led the Dutch authorities to make Schiphol the country’s primary airport.

With its newfound significance, the airport continued to grow, although this process was not without a cost to the local community. To facilitate its continued growth, the nearby town of Rijk had to be demolished to provide space for the expansion.

Amsterdam Schipol Airport Apron
Schiphol has always hosted a diverse array of airlines. Photo: Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons

The new terminal

1967 was a significant year for Schiphol’s continued growth. The new terminal area that was constructed at this time was important as parts of it still remain in use today, more than half a century later. It soon saw further expansion and modification in the 1970s.

One such modification took place in 1970. This was a significant year for the world of aviation as a whole, as it saw the commercial introduction of the legendary Boeing 747. Correspondingly, Schiphol modified its A-pier boarding gates to accommodate the jumbo.

South African Airways Boeing 747-300 Getty
The advent of the 747 caused Schiphol to make various operational changes. Photo: Getty Images

The 747 was the world’s first twin-aisle jetliner, and many other widebody designs have since followed. With this in mind, Schiphol elected to open a new D-pier in 1977. This part of the airport was specifically designed to handle the increasing number of widebodies flying in and out of Amsterdam. In 1978, the airport’s first railway station also opened.

Six runways

As Schiphol has grown, so has its number of runways. With the airport expanding further outwards, these landing strips have become situated increasingly far from its main terminal building. This led to the construction of a new air traffic control tower in 1991. The need for this arose as the old tower no longer had a view over the entire facility.

A diagram of the airport’s runways. Image: NielsB via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Schiphol features an impressive six runways. The airport reports that five serve its commercial operations, while the sixth serves general aviation, private jets, and helicopters. This shorter, 2,014-meter long landing strip (04/22) is known as the ‘Oostbaan.’ Schiphol typically uses two runways at a time (one for departures, one for arrivals). The other five are:

  • 06/24 ‘Kaagbaan,’ 3,500 meters long.
  • 09/27 ‘Buitenveldertbaan,’ 3,453 meters long.
  • 18C/36C ‘Zwanenburgbaan,’3,300 meters long.
  • 18L/36R ‘Aalsmeerbaan,’ 3,400 meters long.
  • 18R/36L ‘Polderbaan,’ 3,800 meters long.
A Brief History Of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport
The ‘Polderbaan’ opened in 2003, and is Schiphol’s longest runway. Photo: Getty Images.

Perhaps the most famous of these six runways is the ‘Polderbaan.’ As Simple Flying explored in April this year, this particular landing strip is known for being situated a full five kilometers from the terminal. This can require taxi times in the region of 15 minutes! In fact, it is so remotely located that it has its air traffic own control tower to handle its operations.

The airport today

Today, Schiphol differs from many of its fellow intercontinental hub airports by having just one terminal. This building itself has three different sections when it comes to its departure halls. These are numbered 1-3. On the other hand, its various piers, which house Schiphol’s 223 boarding gates, are designated by letters. For example, departure hall 1 is served exclusively by piers B and C, as well as sharing pier D with the adjacent departure hall 2.

Amsterdam Schipol Terminal
Schiphol is situated three meters below sea level. Photo: Vmzp85 via Wikimedia Commons

Along with the aforementioned shared pier D, departure hall 2 also features pier E. D is the largest of these structures, and consists of two floors. Of these, the upper level serves Schengen flights, with the lower level doing the honors for non-Schengen services. Pier E’s 14 gates are also dedicated to serving flights to and from non-Schengen destinations.

Meanwhile, departure hall 3 is served by piers F, G, and H/M. Once again, the latter is split between Schengen (M) and non-Schengen (H) flights. Overall, the airport has 18 gates that feature double jetbridges, allow for quicker boarding and disembarking procedures when it comes to processing larger widebody aircraft.

Looking at its size and significance (Europe’s busiest airport by aircraft movements), Schiphol has indeed come a long way.

What do you make of Schiphol Airport? What are your memories of flying into or out of Amsterdam? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.