The world’s oldest airline turns 101

As KLM continues its journey into its second century of operations, Key Aero takes a decade-by-decade look at the Dutch flag carrier's key milestones

KLM 744
From Bi-planes to Boeings, KLM has come a long way since its inception. Aviation Image Network/Simon Gregory

1919 – 1929 

In September 1919, Queen Wilhelmina bestowed the title “Royal” upon the yet-to-be founded company. The following month, eight businessmen established KLM as one of the first commercial airline companies.

KLM used a de Havilland DH.16 leased from Air Transport and Travel for its first flight. Wikimedia Commons/Flight

The carrier’s first flight was operated on May 17, 1920. Pilot Jerry Shaw flew a leased De Havilland DH.16 from London to Amsterdam/Schiphol airport. Onboard were two journalists, a letter from the Mayor of London to his Amsterdam counterpart, and a stack of newspapers. 

After a winter break, KLM resumed services in April 1921 with its own pilots and two aircraft, a Fokker F-II and F-II. The purchase of these aircraft marked a longstanding relationship between the airline and aircraft manufacturer, which would continue until 2017, when the last Fokker 70 was retired. 

A Fokker F-VII, H-NACC (c/n 4759) was used for the carrier's first intercontinental flight. Wikimedia Commons/NIMH

On October 1, 1924, the operator’s first intercontinental test flight departed Amsterdam bound for Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia). Operated by H-NACC (c/n 4759), a Fokker F-VII the main reason for the service was the link the Dutch colonies. 

1930 – 1940 

In 1930, KLM carried 15,143 passengers. The Douglas DC-2 was introduced on the Batavia service in 1934 and the airline began experimenting with transatlantic services that year too. 

The Douglas DC-2 replaced the Fokker F-VII on the Bratavia service in 1934. Wikimedia Commons

Cabin crew made an appearance for the first time in 1935. At first, KLM employed only men, but they are soon followed by a group of women. The flight engineer subsequently drops his role of passenger care when cabin crew were introduced.  

1941 – 1951 

KLM resumed operations after the Second World War in September 1945, starting initially with domestic routes, but expanding to several European destinations later that year. On November 28, the flag carrier reopened the route between Amsterdam and Indonesia. 

The Douglas DC-4 first flew February 14, 1942. Wikimedia Commons/Joost Bakker

The firm began services between the Netherlands capital and New York on May 21, 1946 with a Douglas DC-4. This marked a shift of focus from the east to the west largely driven by economic factors in combination with the increasing operating range of its new aircraft. 

1952 – 1962 

On April 1, 1958 KLM introduced an economy class based on International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines. This step made flying more accessible to an even larger group of people. Within three months, passenger figures increased by 27%.

KLM entered the jet age with the delivery of its first Douglas DC-8 in 1960. Wikimedia Commons/Tim Rees

In November that year, the flag carrier opened an Amsterdam-Tokyo line via the North Pole, which was operated by the Douglas DC-7. 

The dawn of the jet age began on March 25, 1960 with the arrival of the Douglas DC-8. The first aircraft, PH-DCA (c/n 45376) was operated by the flag carrier for 12 years before it was sold to Belgian International Air Services. 

1963 – 1973 

The predecessor to KLM CityHopper, NLM Cityhopper, was founded on September 12, 1966. The carrier breathed new life into the operator’s domestic network and focused on rapidly ferrying business passengers to and from Amsterdam Schiphol. 

Boeing 747
The Boeing 747 first flew on February 9, 1969. Wikimedia Commons/Manfred Groihs

KLM took delivery of its first Boeing 747 on January 31, 1971. The widebody, PH-BUA (c/n 19922) was the 96th example to roll off the American airframer’s production line. It would later accept a further 45 airframes. 

1974 – 1984 

On October 16, 1975, Boeing handed over the airline’s first 747-300 Combi, which marked an important milestone is KLM’s cargo operations. 

KLM A310
KLM took delivery of its first airframe from the European manufacturer in 1983. Wikimedia Commons/Pedro Aragão

In 1980, the operator carried 9,715,069 passengers and in 1983, it reached an agreement with Boeing to convert ten of its 747-200 aircraft into 747-300s with the stretched upper deck modification. 

That year, KLM also took delivery of the first of ten Airbus A310 jets – the European manufacturer’s second generation twin-engine widebody. 

1985 – 1995 

In July 1989, KLM acquired a 20% share in US carrier Northwest Airlines. This was seen as an important step towards the future development of a globe-spanning network partnership with the American operator. 

KLM's partnership with Northwest Airlines was one of the first examples of an airline alliance. Wikimedia Commons/Paul Spijkers

In January 1993, the US Department of Transportation granted KLM and Northwest antitrust immunity, which allowed them to intensify cooperation. By September, all flights between Europe and the US were operated as part of the joint venture.  

KLM CityHopper is formally established following the merger between NLM Cityhopper and NetherLines. 

1996 – 2006 

The flag carrier operated its first flight to Beijing on June 29, 1996 – marking its first step towards serving a number of destinations in China and forging a partnership with Chinese carriers.  

Air UK – an independent British airline which operated from 11 UK airports – became a wholly-owned subsidiary of KLM in 1998. This move provided a huge boost to KLM CityHopper following its merger with the airline in 2003. 

Boeing 777 KLM
The Dutch flag carrier has operated 31 Boeing 777s since its introduction in 2003. Wikimedia Commons/Björn Strey

KLM’s first Boeing 777-200 touches down at Amsterdam Schiphol and began operations to Cape Town, Nairobi, and New York on October 25, 2003. 

The Air France-KLM Group was officially established on May 5, 2004. The Airbus A330 makes its debut at the carrier on August 25, 2005, and the phase-out of the Boeing 767 begins. 

The flag carrier became the first airline to offer self-service transfer kiosk in December 2006, enabling passengers transferring at Schiphol to quickly print new boarding passes. 

2007 – 2017  

KLM issued its last paper ticket on June 2, 2008 – from then on, the airline issued e-tickets only. The US DOT gave KLM, Air France, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines antitrust immunity on May 23, 2008, which enabled the four carriers to streamline their transatlantic operations. 

On March 30, 2010 KLM operated its final flight using the Fokker 50, bidding a fond farewell to its last turboprop aircraft in process. 

Fokker 70
After 20 years of faithful service, the Fokker 70 was retired in 2017. Wikimedia Commons/Johan Menten

KLM CityHopper welcomed its first Embraer E190 aircraft on April 30, 2014. The McDonnell Douglas MD-11 was retired from passenger service on November 11, the same year. 

The carrier’s first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner arrived on November 15, 2015.  

Marking an end of an era, KLM retired its last Fokker 70 from service on October 29, 2017 – ending a 70-year relationship with the Netherlands-based aircraft manufacturer. 

2018 – 2020 

Last year, KLM celebrated its centennial year, carrying 35.1 million passengers in the process. 

The centenarian operator took delivery of its first Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner on July 1, 2019, becoming the first European airline to use the stretched variant. 

The Air France-KLM Group has order 14 Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners. Wikimedia Commons/Adam Moreira

Like other airlines in Europe, KLM has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The carrier announced the retirement of its fleet of Boeing 747s – which were originally due to be phased out in 2021.