Flight Plan

‘I am 100, going on 101’

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on October 02, 2019 Published on October 02, 2019

On October 7, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines marks its 100th birthday. Interestingly, it has been associated with India for 90 of these 100 years. Ashwini Phadnis traces the airline’s history

Fly with an airline that’s 100 not out. This seems an appropriate ad line for the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as it completes 100 years of its existence on October 7. Today, the Amsterdam-headquartered airline serves 165 destinations as its 168 aircraft criss-cross international skies day in and day out. The airline is planning to look back and celebrate its finest moments over the last 100 successful years and also look ahead as part of its centenary celebrations.

In another milestone, on October 7, KLM will become the only international airline that has flown in its original name for a century. Interestingly, the airline has been associated with India for 90 of these 100 years.

Calcutta (Kolkata today) was part of KLM’s Amsterdam-Batavia route (Batavia was previously a Dutch colony), the first intercontinental route that it operated with a Fokker F aircraft, with the flight making 21 stops before reaching Batavia. The 16,000-km-long flight took a little longer than expected — 55 days, instead of the scheduled 22 days!

Adds Jean-Noel Rault, General Manager Air France – KLM, Indian Sub-Continent, the aircraft had three landing spots in India — Jodhpur, Illahabad and Kolkata. He points out that the aircraft had to make multiple landings and India was on the corridor of those countries.

“Aircraft, in those days, could fly limited distances. Low-speed air travel at that time did not allow for any long-distance flights,” says Rault. Scheduled operations to Calcutta started on September 25, 1930, as this airport traditionally served as a strategic stopover on the air route from Europe to IndoChina and Australia.

The airline’s operations were affected by the World War but KLM resumed services following the Second World War, starting with domestic flights in September 1945. The introduction of jet planes after the Second World War made it possible to fly from the Netherlands to Indonesia in just one day.

Stakes in other airlines

Tracing the history of KLM is like picking up nuggets from the 100 years that it has been operational — including the novely of being flown by none less than royalty if you are on a KLM flight! The Monarch of Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander, alongside his royal duties, has also been a co-pilot for the airline’s short-haul routes for the last two decades. Sample this as well: In the 1950s, the airline had chefs who prepared meals onboard; today its aircraft are flying on sustainable kerosene.

During its 100-year journey, KLM has not only expanded its network and connectivity but also acquired stakes in other airlines. Starting in July 1989 when it acquired a 20 per cent stake in NorthWest Airlines, KLM moved on to getting a 25 per cent majority in Alitalia.

In 1996, it acquired a 26 per cent stake in Kenya Airways and, in 2004, the Air France-KLM Group was born. Says Rault, “We exist in a dynamic environment and have turned one hundred years old by seizing opportunities, taking up challenges, connecting with partners, and embracing new technologies.”

Given KLM’s remarkable history, even those working for rival airlines cannot help but express their admiration for the airline.

Mark Sutch, General Manager, Cathay Pacific Airways, says that not only has he had the pleasure of travelling with KLM on many occasions over the last 25 years but he also has a tough job “of professionally competing with such a strong and proud brand. I have always had huge respect for their brand and people and competing with them head-on has been a challenge and an honour,” he says.

India focus

The passage of time has not dulled KLM’s focus on India. Indeed, over the decades, India and its growing aviation market are very much on KLM’s radar.

Alongside the centenary celebrations, KLM will expand its services to and from India. This month it will start operations to Bengaluru and increase frequency between Mumbai and Amsterdam, from three weekly operations to daily flights, by Winter 2019.

The airline also flies to Delhi and uses its most modern fleet of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners on the India routes.

“The attractiveness of the Indian market is that the peak season is in winter. Having a full flux of customers willing to fly in winter is important for us,” says Rault.

“India is a strategic market in the global vision of Air France-KLM, experiencing double-digit growth,” says Rault, adding, “If India is to become the third largest market in the world we, as a big airline, need to increase Air France-KLM’s footprint here, which means getting the best aircraft and trying to increase frequency.”

This, however, is not an easy task as the routes to India are quite challenging because of competition and aggressive pricing.

“On top of that is the mix of travellers to certain destinations. You have 30 to 40 per cent travellers travelling for business and the rest for leisure. It is a challenging market in terms of profitability even though it is improving,” says Arvin Alagh, Commercial Director, Indian Sub-continent.

The most recent challenge that KLM faced in the Indian market is Jet going down as the airline had to accommodate over 80,000 flyers. One thing that KLM has worked out, though, is that the Indian traveller is educated and will not settle for a second-grade product.

With this understanding, everything’s in place, for now and the future.

Published on October 02, 2019
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