The Netherlands is a small country. You can drive from Schiphol to almost any corner of the country within a couple of hours. That said, a domestic KLM network may seem wholly unnecessary, but we did have a local subsidiary, which disappeared for a couple decades, before taking to the air as the Nederlandse Luchtvaartmaatschappij (NLM).
After the Second World War, KLM had reopened its domestic network, with flights from Amsterdam to Groningen (via Leeuwarden), Maastricht and Enschede. But the network proved unprofitable, even after fares were dropped by a whopping 50%. This attracted a sharp increase in passengers, but even then profits were not forthcoming, prompting the KLM board to suspend domestic services towards the end of the 1940s.
But the tide slowly began to turn. The northern and southern provinces of the Netherlands became more industrialised and the population grew, prompting demand for faster links through Schiphol to the major cities in west. After a period of trial services to assess demand, KLM took the bold step of establishing the Nederlandse Luchtvaartmaatschappij (NLM) in 1966. Initially, two routes were introduced: the Northern Line from Schiphol via Enschede to Groningen, and the Southern Line from Schiphol via Rotterdam and Eindhoven to Maastricht. The NLM fleet consisted of two Fokker F27 Friendships, which were leased from the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) and had to be converted for civilian purposes. The NLM payroll listed 21 men and 1 woman – the director’s secretary.
The first flights to Schiphol were operated on 29 August 1966 from the airport at Eelde (Groningen) and Beek (Maastricht). In the 1966-67 annual report, the board reported a “satisfactory result”, with an average load factor of 46% for the Northern Line and 35% for the Southern Line in the first six months of operation. The two lines were, or course, primarily intended for corporate customers seeking quick connections, with arrival times at Schiphol carefully chosen to ensure easy transfers to international flights. But there was also another target group: youthful flight enthusiasts. Because KLM also saw NLM as a means to familiarise young people with aviation. Figures in subsequent years revealed that this was indeed the case, and many older people also experience their very first flight with NLM, which not only operated scheduled services, but also roundtrip excursions.
Ups and downs
The results improved slowly in the years thereafter. In 1972, KLM decided to serve each of the Dutch cities independently. By then the NLM fleet consisted of four Fokker F27s, making this possible. The network expanded in 1974, with the launch of the Eindhoven-Hamburg route, and again in 1975, with the Groningen-Bremen route. NLM later also served foreign destinations from Schiphol and Rotterdam, launching service to the British Channel Island of Guernsey in the summer of 1978, and to Madeira in the winter of that year.
The airline celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1976, adding the name “Cityhopper” to its brand, making it more distinctive in foreign markets.
One of the darkest days in the NLM Cityhopper’s history was 6 October 1981, when a Fokker F-28 Fellowship crashed near Moerdijk in a heavy thunderstorm. Everyone on board died, as did a fireman on the ground, who witnessed the accident and died of a heart attack. The extreme weather conditions subjected the aircraft to forces it was technically incapable of withstanding. This caused one of the wings to break off, resulting in the crash.
The path to adulthood
NLM Cityhopper’s network continued to expand in the 1970s and ‘80s, with more and more flights from Dutch regional airports to various European destinations. NLM Cityhopper also began operating more flights from Schiphol to European destinations, gradually becoming a so-called “feeder airline” for passengers transferring to international flights at Schiphol. In 1988, KLM took over the regional airline Netherlines, which was managed by a single board, together with NLM. The two KLM subsidiaries later merged and began operating under the name KLM Cityhopper BV in 1991.
And this is where I draw the line, because the name NLM ceased to exist after 1991. When I asked former staff what it was like at NLM, they all agreed they were a tight-knit group. At first, staff were seconded to NLM from KLM, but later they become “true NLM-ers”. In 1976, the airline also formed its own “stewardess corps”, but this term doesn’t quite describe their status, because they were contract employees on the ground and stewardesses in the air. In short, the stewardess who checked you in also served you on board. Over a period of 25 years, NLM blossomed from a small airline, with 22 employees and two aircraft, into a fully-fledged carrier that currently operates around half of KLM’s European flights. KLM’s daughter company has become a city-hopping lady.