The History Of Transavia – KLM’s Low Cost Subsidiary

Started by an American with three DC-6s in 1965, low-cost-carrier Transavia has grown to become the second-largest airline in the Netherlands. Now wholly-owned by its parent compatriot KLM, what began as a small-scale charter operation has grown to reach close to 90 destinations in over 20 counties. Let’s take a look at how it got there.

The History Of Transavia – KLM’s Low Cost Subsidiary
An American started Transavia in 1965. Photo: Transavia

LCCs shifting landscape

In the past few decades, legacy carriers have been increasingly challenged by the rise of their budget relatives – the low-cost-carriers, or the LCCs. These options for the cost-conscious traveler have increasingly expanded into territory traditionally associated with FSCs, or full-service-carriers. While initially focused on regional and short-haul traffic, their maneuvering onto the long-haul market has seen FSCs adapt their offerings to match LCC products.

While the success of the low-cost long-haul segment is subject to debate, there is no question that the rise of the LCC has severely shifted the landscape of commercial aviation. So what is a century-old classic European airline, such as Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (KLM), meaning the Royal Aviation Company, to do? Why, acquire its own, wholly-owned low-cost subsidiary branch, of course.

Paris Orly Transavia
KLM purchased 80% of Transavia in 1991. Photo: Getty Images

Origins and acquisition

In 1991, Transavia’s major shareholder at the time, Nedlloyd, sold 80% of the airline’s shares to KLM. In June 2003, the mainline carrier acquired the remaining 20%, making it the sole owner of Transavia. However, the history of the LCC now part of the Air France-KLM group goes back much further than that.

In 1965, two Americans had the idea to launch a charter airline in the Netherlands. Another operator, Martinair, also founded by an American and which exists as a cargo carrier to this day, had been conducting business in the country quite successfully since 1958.

Chalmers Goodlin and Captain Peter Holmes decided to enlist a former member of the Martinair management team. They went about acquiring an operating license for a small dormant company based out of Maastricht. The entity was known as Transavia Limburg and had three Douglas DC-6s available.

Transavia history
Transavia began operations with three DC-6s. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons

Inaugural flight to Naples

The certification from the Dutch government came through on November 14th, 1966, and two days later, Peter Holmes captained the airline’s inaugural flight from Amsterdam to Naples and back again. The carrier was now known as Transavia Holland, and on board its first flight was the Dutch Ballet Orchestra and the Dutch Dance Theatre.

Today, Transavia has six home bases in the Netherlands and France. A seventh was planned for April 2020 but has since been pushed back due to the current situation. From them, it serves close to 90 destinations in over 20 countries in Europe and the broader Mediterranean. So what did the road, and the fleet, between then and now look like?

From Sud Caravelle to Boeing 737s

In 1969, the first of fourteen second-hand Sud Caravelle aircraft joined the carrier’s small DC-6 fleet. The French-made twin-jet remained in the airline’s service until the late 1970s when the carrier transitioned to a Boeing 737 dominated fleet.

Transavia’s first 737-200 arrived in September 1974. The leased aircraft was named after another pioneer in aviation (albeit a different branch), Neil Armstrong. However, it remained with the airline for less than a year and exited the fleet in May 1975. Over the course of the years, Transavia has operated a total of 121 737s of the -200, -300, -400, -700, and -800 variety.

Today, it has seven 737-700s with an average age of 17.6 years, and 35 737-800s, averaging ten years between them. The carrier has also operated a small number of 757s, as well as dabbled in the occasional Airbus A300 (1976-77), A310 (1998-99), and British Aerospace 146-200 (a few months in 1997).

Transavia history
Transavia’s fourteen Sud Caravelle’s were phased out by Boeing 737s. Photo: SDASM Archives via Flickr

First in two significant markets

Ten years after its inauguration, Transavia held 40% of the Dutch leisure holiday market, making it Martinair’s main competitor. In 1986 the company was renamed from Transavia Holland to Transavia Airlines. It began operating its first scheduled service between Amsterdam Schiphol and London Gatwick on October 26th, 1986, as the first airline to utilize an open skies agreement between the Netherlands and the UK.

When Greek aviation law changed in 1998 to allow foreign carriers to operate domestic services in the country, Transavia was the first airline out of the gate onto that market as well.

The History Of Transavia – KLM’s Low Cost Subsidiary
Transavia operates a single-type fleet of Boeing 737s. Photo: Getty Images

Wholly-owned by 2003

As previously stated, by now, Transavia had already been acquired to 80% by KLM. By 2003, the parent carrier scooped up the remaining 20%, just in time to see Transavia become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Air France-KLM group when the two merged a year later. However, it should be noted that Transavia still runs as an independent operation. In the Netherlands, Transavia has three home bases: Amsterdam Schiphol, Rotterdam-the Hague, and Eindhoven.

Transavia Airlines also owns 40% of Transavia France, which was founded in 2006 and began operations in 2007. The French branch of the LCC operates out of Paris-Orly, Lyon-Saint Exupéry, and Nantes Atlantique. Its plans to open a fourth base at Montpellier-Méditerranée in April 2020 have been pushed back due to current circumstances. Transavia France currently operates 40 737-800s with an average age of 8.4 years.

Transavia Denmark

For a brief moment, there was a third branch on the green and white Transavia tree. In October 2006, Transavia Denmark commenced operations, based out of Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport. Just as its siblings, it operated charter and scheduled services to leisure destinations. However, it failed to live up to expectations, and operations ceased in April 2011.

Transavia Peter Pan
Transavia operates a special Peter Pan aircraft for the holiday club with the same name. Photo: JordySchaap via Wikimedia Commons

Faith and trust and pixie dust

In November 2017, Transavia unveiled a special Peter Pan-themed aircraft. The livery was created to celebrate the airline’s 50th anniversary, but also to commemorate the Peter Pan holiday club. Set up in 1996 by Transavia staff, the club organizes trips for young people between 13 and 20 years of age who are unable to go on holiday independently due to impairments or chronic illnesses.

Since January 2020, Transavia Airlines has a new CEO, Marcel de Nooijer. His first few months of the job have certainly been anything but uneventful.