Amsterdam Schiphol Airport: From Small Field To International Hub

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Today, over 100 years since it first opened as a military airbase on September 16th, 1916, Amsterdam Schiphol is the busiest of the world’s ten oldest airports that are still in operation. From that first plane landing in a farmer’s field to an international hub with 108 airlines serving over 70 million passengers per year, it has certainly come a long way. Let’s take a look at how it got there.

KLM-tailfins-schiphol
Schiphol saw over 70 million passengers last year. Photo: KLM

Humble beginnings in troubled times

During WWI, in 1916, staff from the Dutch Ministry of War acquired a piece of land in the Haarlemmermeer area, located about 30 km southeast of Amsterdam to use as a military airfield. The land was purchased from a farmer for the sum of 55,290 guilders, something akin to half a million euro in today’s money. What began with 12 hectares had within a year expanded to become one of the largest airports in Europe.

When the war ended in 1918, the airfield remained a military base for another five years. However, planes were now used to carry goods, mail, and people. KLM was founded in 1919 and operated its first scheduled service from Amsterdam to London and back again a year later. In 1923, Schiphol transitioned under the auspices of the City of Amsterdam.

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Schiphol history
Schiphol began as a small military airfield. Photo: Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie via Wikimedia Commons

Schiphol-Les-Bains

As is the case for areas that have been dredged, such as much of the Netherlands, the groundwater level beneath Schiphol was very high. As aircraft became heavier in the 1920s, this caused a problem as the airfield still had no paved runways. Less flattering nicknames abounded. It was known as the Schiphol Mudport, or even the French contribution of Schiphol-Les-Bains, an expression usually reserved for swimming resorts.

Thankfully, this was taken care of, along with extensive expansion and the very first passenger building, in time for the Amsterdam Olympic Games in 1928.

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KLM’s first passenger aircraft arrived in Schiphol on May 17th, 1920. Photo: KLM 

Fliegerhorst 561

Of course, WWI is not the only war significant to Schiphol’s history. During the Second World War, Hitler invaded the Netherlands on May 10th, 1940. The airport was considered a strategic target and suffered massive damages from bombings. When the Netherlands surrendered to Germany five days later, the invading forces were quick to rebuild, and to rename. For the next five years, Schiphol was known as Fliegerhorst 561. At the height of the war, the Luftwaffe stationed 70 aircraft at the airfield.

Unfortunately for Schiphol, it was now a strategic target for the allied forces, which meant more bombs. On December 13th, the US dropped nearly 1,600 bombs on the airport, rendering it not so strategic anymore.

When the Germans began retreating in 1944, they, in turn, blew up parts of the airport, leaving it almost unusable. After the Netherlands was liberated on April 14th, 1945, reconstruction efforts were hastily underway. The first plane landed again only three months later.

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Meanwhile, it took until the end of the decade before the airport once more had a terminal building. Until then, a row of barracks aptly named Vrijheidsstraat, meaning Freedom Street, served as a shelter for goods and people.

Schiphol Airport history
Schiphol was heavily bombed during WWII. Photo: Schiphol Airport

Plans for ten runways

The airport’s then manager, Jan Dellaert, presented an ambitious expansion plan including a new traffic tower, a central terminal building, and no less than six to ten runways! He got four, to accommodate the windy conditions at the airport – the rest were deemed to be over budget.

Today, the number of runways has been expanded to six, although one is used mostly for private aircraft. As a side note, this puts Schiphol just two behind Chicago O’Hare, which holds the record for most runways in the world.

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The 1950s saw the opening of the first air traffic control tower, the first duty-free shop, and the rise of Schiphol as a day trip destination for families. In fact, paying guests was one of the airport’s main sources of revenue throughout much of the decade. In 1958, a new concrete runway was added to accommodate the arrival of much heavier jet engine planes.

New terminal completed in 1967

A new terminal building, based on Dellaert’s plans from the 1940s, was inaugurated in 1967. It replaced most of the old buildings, which are now known as Schiphol-East. They are still in use for aircraft maintenance and offices.

The expansion was rapid, and despite having to halt construction in 1973 following an oil embargo on the Netherlands for having supported Israel in the Yom Kippur war, a new terminal opened in 1975. In addition, the new pier D (now known as F), that was capable of handling large jets, such as the 747.

At the end of the 80s, a decade that saw the rise of the hub-and-spoke model and turned Schiphol into a major European hub, the airport presents the “Schiphol Master Plan 2003.” Ahead of its time perhaps, the large-scale expansion took into account environmental impact and protection.

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Schiphol’s new ATC was the tallest in the world when it was built in 1991. Photo: Getty Images

New ATC tallest in the world

As part of the plan, Schiphol got a new air traffic control tower (ATC) in 1991. At the time, it was the tallest in the world at 101.7 meters. Fun fact, the tallest in the world today is located Vancouver Harbour Airport and measures 142 meters.

The latest runway was constructed in 2003. Many a traveler to Schiphol may have balked at the long taxi times of up to 20 minutes to get from the gate to actual takeoff, as it crosse the A5 motorway. The new runway also required the construction of an additional ATC, as it was too far away for the existing one to oversee.

Over the past two decades, the world-famous Rijksmuseum has opened an admission-free annex at the airport, and a library of Dutch books, movies, and art has been added to the airport’s offerings.

Expansion plans for a new terminal and new piers have been put on hold. Photo: Chris Loh/Simple Flying

Further expansion pushed back

The plans for a new terminal building have been put on hold due to recent events. The scheduled inauguration in 2023 has now been pushed back – indefinitely. However, Schiphol continues its work towards becoming the world’s most sustainable airport. In addition to a new low-emissions taxiing system, the airport is still on course to add biofuel to its supply.  

While current circumstances have decimated plans, both individual and organizational, for the near future, once air travel bounces back, Schiphol is bound to reclaim its spot as one of the business hubs in Europe. From its humble beginnings to its position as a leader in the sustainable aviation movement and drone pioneer, it is exciting to see where the next few decades will take it, even if the trajectory has currently been put on pause.

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