On 21 May 1946, a DC-4 set off to New York from Amsterdam making KLM the first European airline to offer service across the Atlantic to the United States. Now, seventy years on, KLM’s North Atlantic route network is still one of the key gateways between the two continents. An excellent opportunity to celebrate and share a story about the past.
The DC-4 ‘de Rotterdam’ flies to New York for the first time.
Of course a seventieth anniversary is an important milestone, but KLM has other destinations in its network that is has served longer. Most are in Europe and further to the east in Asia. KLM stayed closer to home in the early days, with flights to London, Paris, Hamburg and Stockholm. But there was always the ambition to connect the Netherlands to its colonies in what is now Indonesia. This is why the initial focus was on Europe and the East. One exception was KLM’s West Indies operation. But, again, the main aim was to connect the Netherlands with its colonies in the Caribbean and South America. However, this vision changed during World War II and developed rapidly in the post-war years.
It was a long-cherished dream of KLM’s first president, Albert Plesman, to start scheduled service between Amsterdam and New York. Airlines in the US had developed a degree of protectionism – to put it mildly – and they were not about to welcome an outsider like KLM with open arms. Finally, with the help of some serious diplomatic talent, the Netherlands and the US managed to hammer out a bilateral civil aviation agreement thereby allowing KLM to fly the Amsterdam-New York route. In January of 1946, KLM initiated a series of test flights and, on 21 May of that same year, we were ready to go. The DC-4, a four-engine aircraft seating forty-four passengers, departed from Schiphol carrying a compliment of governmental authorities, journalists, KLM staff and a single businessman for New York.
Feather in the cap
The first flights included layovers in Glasgow and Gander, Newfoundland. What’s more, we had to prepare a few diversion airports so we had a place to stop in the event of poor weather. Speed was important, but safety was always more important. The total travel time of twenty-five-and-a-half hours included twenty-one hours of flight. The service started with two flights each week. However, the route proved so popular that, in 1946 alone, we had to add another thirty-three flights. In the years that followed, the frequency increased and, in 1950, we were flying to New York every day of the week. The route turned out to be an enormous success and KLM had a real feather in its cap.
Two posters promoting New York. Left: the 1950s. Right: 1948.
In those years, civil aviation was changing steadily but inexorably. The passengers were also changing. Aircraft were growing in size and airlines were able to offer greater capacity. Flying was an expensive proposition. But, precisely by introducing Tourist Class and, later on, Economy Class, flight became available to a wider group of people. KLM first introduced the new classes on this all-important North Atlantic route, where it was also using new aircraft types.
As I trace KLM’s history, I can see new aircraft being introduced regularly on the North Atlantic routes. The DC-8, KLM’s first jet aircraft, first flew to New York and the same was the case with the first Boeing 747-200, our first wide-body jet. That went hand-in-hand with capacity increases. Time and again, KLM saw the potential of the North Atlantic route growing and acted accordingly.
The DC-8, PH-DCG at New York International Airport before it was renamed John F Kennedy International Airport.
New routes, new partnerships
At first, the number of destinations on the route did not grow spectacularly. In 1949, we added Montreal to the list and, in 1957 Houston, and Anchorage as a stopover on the Pole Route. In the 1970s, we acquired landing rights in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles. But we took our greatest steps in the 1980s and 1990s. The great breakthrough came when the Netherlands and the US signed the Open Skies Agreement. It was an essential step in a new cooperative effort.
In 1993, when the US Department of Transportation granted antitrust immunity (which ensured that there was no monopoly along a specific route that might be detrimental to passengers or competitors) and the EU gave its consent. All this made it much easier to cooperate more closely with our strategic partner, Northwest Airlines (NWA). In 1997 we were able to develop that partnership into a joint venture. At the time, the joint venture between two airlines was the largest of its kind in the world. In 2008, NWA merged with Delta Air Lines, which already had a strategic partnership with Air France. In 2009, it gave rise to the transatlantic joint venture between the three airlines. In 2010, Alitalia joined in and the group took its current form.
Back to New York. That is, after all, where we began. From the very start, KLM saw this route’s enormous potential. Yes, it was a status symbol, but not only that. The development of Schiphol in the post-war years and the economic importance of cooperation with the US grew steadily in importance. So it came as no wonder that, for years, KLM had its New York office on Fifth Avenue – not exactly the shabbiest street in town.
Grand opening of the KLM office in New York City with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer. Left: dr. J.H. van Royen.
In 1959, KLM moved to the corner of 49th Street and 5th Avenue, making it the single largest office that any airline had in New York at the time. Our “very own” Audrey Hepburn – who had a special connection the Netherlands and KLM – opened the office among much festivity. Fifth Avenue has long been known for its Christmas windows and KLM was not about to be left out. KLM’s Christmas window included constructions from the miniature Dutch city of Madurodam, all of which drew a great deal of attention. KLM had put itself on the map in The Big Apple. How do you make a small country great? Like this.
Madurodam window, KLM office in New York. 1969.