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Fokker F.7a

In July 1924, KLM began using the new Fokker F.7 aircraft, which could carry seven passengers in reasonable comfort.

Fokker F.20

The Fokker F.20, used in the early 1930s, had a top speed of about 200 kilometers per hour.

Fokker F.36

The Fokker F.36 was a little too slow for Albert Plesman, who ran KLM during its earlier years.

KLM Douglas DC-2

KLM contracted with Douglas Aircraft to purchase 14 DC-2s to replace its slower Fokker airplanes.

KLM Douglas DC-3

KLM began operating the DC-3 in 1937.

KLM – Royal Dutch Airlines

The letters most commonly associated with the history of Dutch aviation are “K.L.M.,” which stand for Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij voor Nederland an Kolonien (“Royal Dutch Airlines” in English). By the end of the 20th century, KLM had become one of world's largest airlines in terms of routes served. KLM also has the distinction of being the world's oldest airline that is still operating, as well as the longest continually operating airline.

Like in most major European countries, commercial aviation in the Netherlands had its beginnings in the immediate aftermath of World War I. A group of investors and bankers led by 30-year old Albert Plesman formed KLM on October 7, 1919. The airline began its first service on May 17, 1920, with an Amsterdam-London service flying an old De Havilland DH-16 aircraft chartered from the British company Air Transport and Travel (AT&T). By September, KLM had expanded its offerings by serving Copenhagen in Denmark and Hamburg in Germany. In its early days, KLM used Dutch-made planes such as the four-seater Fokker F.2 and the five-passenger Fokker F.3 for its flights. By the early 1920s, KLM slowly expanded its routes via a series of cooperative agreements with other airlines. For example, KLM signed an agreement with the German company Deutscher Aero Lloyd to provide services to Hamburg.

KLM was widely known in Europe as a carrier of impeccable service. In July 1924, the airline began using the new Fokker F.7 aircraft, able to carry seven passengers in relatively comfortable conditions. KLM had a reputation for setting the standards of good service, both with the timeliness of their flights and with interior accommodations for passengers. Under the leadership of the charismatic and often authoritarian Plesman, for the first three decades of its operations, KLM maintained a forward-looking equipment policy, improving its fleet year by year with larger, faster, and more efficient aircraft. KLM also enjoyed an advantage over other European countries since the Dutch company Fokker produced some of the most popular passenger airplanes of the 1920s, such as the Fokker F.7a/3m and F.7b/3m.

Like most European airlines, KLM also suffered through hard times in the late 1920s. In fact, the company would have ended up bankrupt had it not been for a government bailout in 1927 that ensured a strong state role in future operations of the airline.

During his career, Plesman believed that KLM should have the fastest available aircraft. The latest Fokker models of the early 1930s, such as the Fokker F.20 and F.36, were limited by top speeds of about 124 miles per hour (200 kilometers per hour). Plesman, looking for something faster, contracted with the U.S. Douglas company for 14 DC-2s, thus opening Douglas' entry into the European aviation market. When KLM began operating the Douglas DC-3 in 1937, the airline's services extended to several cities in Great Britain, France, Austria, Hungary, and the countries of Scandinavia. In 1930, KLM was carrying about 18,000 passengers per year; by 1939, it was serving more than 160,000 passengers, fourth only to the German DLH (later Lufthansa), the Soviet Aeroflot, and Britain's Imperial Airways.

One of the most noteworthy episodes in KLM's history was the battle with Imperial Airways to dominate the far reaches of the Dutch and British colonial empires in the mid-1930s. The competition began a decade earlier when both companies explored possible routes into Asia. The British were initially stalled in their goals of further expansion because Imperial Airways already had commitments to serve a large number of points across Asia—all of which included passenger, mail, and freight services and its resources were stretched to the limit. As a result, the airline could not offer the kind of reliable and high quality service that KLM could provide to a few key locations in Asia. KLM focused all its resources on a few important routes, especially those to the Dutch East Indies. Perhaps the most famous day in the early history of KLM was October 1, 1931, when the airline began regular passenger service between Amsterdam and Batavia (now known as Jakarta in Indonesia) using Fokker F.12 aircraft fitted with four luxury seats. The trip lasted 10 entire days, including 81 hours of flying time. It was the longest regularly scheduled flight offered by any airline in the world.

KLM's business interests were helped by victories in several famous air races of the period. For example, in 1935, KLM won the MacRobertson England-Australia Air Race, using a Douglas DC-2 monoplane. The win enabled KLM to make significant gains in opening and maintaining air routes between Great Britain and Australia. By June 1938, KLM was offering an eight-day service from Amsterdam to Sydney, Australia in parallel with regular international flights from Europe to Egypt, India, the Caribbean, and South America. For many business travelers, KLM was the most convenient way to travel to the farthest reaches of the planet. Almost all the routes were served by Douglas DC-2, DC-3, and DC-5 aircraft. Plesman switched completely to Douglas after he had a falling out with the Fokker company.

In October 1928, the Dutch established a company known as the Royal Dutch Indies Airlines (known by the abbreviation KNILM) with strong connections to KLM for passenger service to east Asia and Australia. KNILM faced stiff opposition from Britain's Imperial Airways and through the next decade, the two Dutch airlines fought hard with Imperial Airways to dominate the air routes into Asia. The British, with their huge empire, were able to block the Dutch in key routes by denying them the passage of “overflight” or by cooperative agreements with other national airlines to prevent KLM from taking business away from Imperial Airways.

The advent of World War II changed the fortunes of the Dutch airline, as it did almost every other major airline in the world. KLM stopped all its European flights in August 1939 except to Scandinavia, Belgium, and London. Despite defiant attempts to continue regularly scheduled service after the war began, KLM had to close all its European operations in May 1940 when the Nazis invaded and occupied the Netherlands. Amazingly, the company continued to provide services in eastern Asia even though it no longer had a “home” country. For a while, KLM operated out of New York. Longtime KLM president Plesman quickly resumed regular operations as the war neared its end. In April 1945, he received a loan of 14 Douglas C-54 four-engine transports (the military version of the DC-4) from the U.S. government. Using these planes, KLM once again began service from Amsterdam to Jakarta, inaugurating a new postwar era for one of the greatest airlines in European aviation history.

—Asif Siddiqi


Davies, R. E. G. A History of The World's Airlines. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Gibbs-Smith, Charles Harvard. Aviation: An Historical Survey From Its Origins to the End of World War II. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970.

Trimble, William F. From Airships to Airbus: The History of Civil and Commercial Aviation: Volume 2: Pioneers and Operations. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

On-line References

“The Netherlands' History of Flight” http://www.flight100.org/history/netherlands.html

“Batavia Memorial Flight” http://members1.chello.nl/~paa.weezepoel/index.html

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How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

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World History

Era 8

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The causes and global consequences of WWII.