Celebrating its 100 year anniversary in 2019, KLM is the oldest airline in the world still operating under its original name. It has a fascinating history of continuous service – starting out with historic short flights to London, then expanding to offer intercontinental service to Asia, and today serving 145 destinations worldwide with 120 aircraft. This article takes a look back over the highlights of these 100 years of aviation history.
Early beginnings in Amsterdam
KLM – or to give it its full title Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, meaning Royal Aviation Company – was founded in 1919 by a group of investors and its first director Albert Plesman.
The airline started flying in May 1920, with the first flight using a leased DeHavilland DH-16 plane to fly from Croydon, London to Amsterdam. Onboard were two journalists, newspapers and a letter from the Mayor of London – a fitting start to 100 years of passenger and freight transport!
A regular service began between these two locations, and over the first year it carried 345 passengers. A formidable effort at the time – but of course less than one 747 flight today! As the business grew, KLM began to operate their own Fokker planes, expanded their presence at Schipol and opened a passenger office in central Amsterdam – the first for any airline.
Opening up intercontinental service – flights to Indonesia
Throughout its early history, KLM worked closely with the Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker. This was most evident with the design of a new aircraft for intercontinental travel, the Fokker F.VII. This made its first flight from Amsterdam to Jakarta (known as Batavia then) in October 1924 – a ground-breaking 55-day journey proving the possibilities of long-distance aviation.
Starting service to the Dutch colonies was a main objective of KLM, and regular services on the route commenced in September 1929, with a journey time of five and a half days.
New destinations and aircraft
Over the following years, intercontinental service expanded. During the 1930s, service began to Curacao, and the Batavia service was extended to operate to Australia.
The airline also introduced aircraft from US manufacturer Douglas – their first move into the European market. Fokker aircraft served the company well, but the higher speed of the Douglas DC2 and DC3 was a great advantage.
Tough times during the war years
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 hit KLM hard. With the Netherlands occupied by Germany, service was suspended. A few aircraft, however, were used in the UK by BOAC on routes from London. Others that were in Dutch East Indian territory at the time of the outbreak remained there and were used for refugee transportation.
As soon as the war ended in 1945, KLM were quick to resume services, both within Europe and to Jakarta. Service to New York began in May 1946, with KLM offering the first direct flights between Amsterdam and New York, using a Douglas DC4 aircraft.
Throughout the 1950s expansion continued, with several further destinations in the United States added. KLM also introduced new long-range, pressurized aircraft including the DC6 and new aircraft from Lockheed – the Constellation and the Electra.
With the expansion in routes and destinations came a change in service offerings. In 1958, KLM introduced economy class for the first time, a more basic version of their existing ‘tourist class.’ According to KLM, this was an immediate success, and the ability to offer lower prices saw a 27% increase in passengers in just the first three months.
Change of ownership – nationalizing the company
Soon after the end of the war, the Dutch government took a small stake in the airline, but it remained under private control. This changed in 1954 following the death of long term president Albert Plesman. The financial pressures at that time saw the Dutch government increase its ownership to two thirds, making KLM a Dutch national company. This close relationship was to remain until 1966 when it again became private, only to be re-nationalized after the oil crisis in 1973!
Entering the jet age
KLM took delivery of its first jet engine aircraft in March 1960 – a Douglas DC8, fittingly named after the former president Albert Plesman. As other airlines also experienced, this brought huge advances in route possibilities and reduction in flight times, but also challenging cost increases which likely contributed to their nationalization.
Another milestone event occurred in 1971, with the addition of the Boeing 747 to their fleet. This went further in 1975 with the introduction of the Boeing 747-306B Combi aircraft, giving the airline a strong position in dual passenger/cargo operations globally.
The growth in flights brought other changes to operations as well. In 1966, the company launched NLM (Nederlandse Luchtvaart Maatschappij) – later to become NLM Cityhopper – operating short-haul flights. These would act as feeder flights for long haul passengers as well as leisure and sightseeing flights for increasingly curious passengers.
Moving to modern times
Growth at KLM continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Passenger traffic grew from 9.7 million passengers in 1980 to 16 million in 1990. And the now very familiar 747-400 entered service in 1989.
The airline also grew its worldwide presence through partnerships and acquisitions. In 1989, KLM acquired a 20 percent stake in US-based Northwest Airlines. And with approval from the US Department of Transportation, they began joint venture operations on flights between the US and Europe. They jointly introduced a ‘World Business Class’ product on intercontinental routes in 1994.
Expansion continued, with the acquisition of a 26 percent stake in Kenya Airways in 1996. And in 1998, KLM repurchased shares from the Dutch government to once again become a privately owned company.
Customer loyalty programs are standard today, but this was not so thirty years ago. KLM were pioneers in this area, being the first European airline to launch a frequent flyer program – known as Flying Dutchman. This became the Flying Blue program in 2005.
The company today – Air France-KLM
Major changes took place in May 2004 when KLM finalized its merger with Air France to form Air France-KLM. Both airlines would continue though to operate under their own brands. Soon after KLM became a member of the SkyTeam airline alliance – bringing shared benefits in operations and customer loyalty between the 29 member airlines.
The company has focused strongly on sustainability. They held top place in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index from 2005 until 2016 and began introducing Biofuel flights as early as 2007 (with the first intercontinental flight to New York taking place in 2013).
And of course, aircraft usage has continued to move forward. KLM started operating the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in 2015. Delivery of the 787-10 began in 2019. Of course, older aircraft continue to be retired. The 787 fleet will eventually replace the 747s, due to be retired by 2021.
And in October 2017, KLM retired its last Fokker aircraft (the Fokker 70). For KLM history fans, this was a significant event – bringing to an end the use of Fokker aircraft since their first flights in the 1920s.