Schiphol’s First 10 Years As a Commercial Airport

Posted by at 09:30

“So, how are things at Schiphol these days?” I get asked this question fairly frequently by people who know I work for KLM. Only, I don’t work at Schiphol. I work in Amstelveen at KLM’s headquarters. Of course, I understand the association and it illustrates just how closely the companies – the airline and the airport – are linked. One is almost 100 and the other is celebrating its centenary this week. Last week it gained the Royal designation – Koninklijk Schiphol!

Anyone who tries to capture a century in a blog will have a slightly distorted view of history. I won’t even try. The first ten years of civil aviation alone is ambitious, but I’ll give it a go. Tender beginnings in a grassy field.

1921 De Havilland 9 DH-9B1921: A De Havilland DH-9B H-NABO at a misty Schiphol

Maaldrift

The commercial airport that we call Schiphol was very nearly built somewhere else. In which case, we would have had something like Maaldrift International Airport. When a site had to be found for an airport for the newly founded KLM, Albert Plesman’s eye first fell on the hamlet of Maaldrift, adjacent to Wassenaar, near The Hague. There was already a small airfield at the site.

To start, it would be used for flight instruction, but Plesman had bigger plans for Maaldrift. He wanted to operate the first commercial line from there to London. As he saw it, the location had two important advantages: It was close to the seat of Dutch government and close to KLM headquarters – consisting at the time of two rooms and four employees – also in The Hague.

1926 met puin verharde toegangsweg SPLThe access road was a gravel track.

Marshy pastureland

There were, however, other forces at play, namely in the business centre of Amsterdam, which wanted an airfield closer by. There had been a military airfield in the reclaimed Haarlemmermeer, not far from Amsterdam, since 1916. It didn’t amount to much more than a few pastures end-to-end with a couple of wooden hangars on it. But that’s what most airfields looked like in the Netherlands at the time, and Schiphol was no exception.

A lucrative postal contract lay ahead for KLM, provided that flights could be operated from Schiphol. Meanwhile, the War Office (today called the Ministry of Defence) had designated Schiphol as a civil aviation site. And ultimately, that is what became of the pasture in the Haarlemmermeer. Alongside the wooden hangars for military aircraft, a new stone hangar was soon built for civil aviation.

1926 stationsgebouw SPLKLM’s first station building

In 1920, Schiphol welcomed 440 passengers. That number would grow in the years to follow, not only as a result of KLM flights, but thanks to foreign airlines with which KLM worked.

Conditions at the airport were not always ideal. The ground was soft and could turn considerably marshy, so much so that everyone had to join in to pull aircraft out of the mud at times. KLM’s 1924 annual report has this to say: “(…) Schiphol is one of the world’s most preeminent airports. Over the course of 1924, however, it has become one of the worst, and the conditions on the ground are indeed embarrassing.”

But it would be another two years before any major investments were made to help improve the situation at the airport.

1934 KLM cafe restaurant SchipholThe restaurant at Schiphol

Modern conveniences

In the 1920s, KLM had built Café Restaurant Schiphol including a beautiful terrace next to the landing field, a nice addition for day-trippers who wanted to watch aircraft coming and going. On 1 April 1926, the city of Amsterdam signed an agreement with governmental authorities putting the airport under the control of the city. This turned out to be a major step forward.

That same year, the airport acquired a concrete apron in front of the large hangar so that aircraft didn’t continue to sink into the mud. Funds were also earmarked for the construction of ground lighting, underground fuel tanks, and fuelling points.

1927 restaurant SPLInterior of the restaurant at Schiphol

Late in 1927, the cornerstone was laid for a new terminal building that would be completed just prior to the Olympic Games, held in Amsterdam in 1928. In the years leading up to that, the roads around Schiphol had gradually been improved so that passengers and day-trippers would not have to reach the airport over muddy roads.

Flight may have been for the privileged few, but it was also very much a part of daily life. Just barely ten years after its hesitant beginnings, the Netherlands had a state-of-the-art airport.

1928 passagiersafhand SPLPassenger handling at Schiphol in 1928.

Scary

Anyone departing from or transferring at one of the world’s most modern airports can hardly imagine how it all started. At the very best, passengers could take a KLM bus from Leidseplein Square in Amsterdam over a bumpy road to some pastureland populated by a few wooden shacks. Starting is one thing. Persevering and becoming successful is quite another. That was certainly the case for Schiphol when it became a commercial airport.

Schiphol’s first commercial years changed the face of civil aviation from something scary and unknown into that which became the norm. The question, “Are the passengers coming?” could now be answered with a resounding “yes”. And they kept coming.

17 Responses to Schiphol’s First 10 Years As a Commercial Airport

  1. Leshem Natan

    The KLM restaurant at the Schiphol airport was so beautiful…….
    Can’t Imagen it was so stylish these days…..
    Now I can understand how KLM got its reputation

  2. Jan Hemink

    Good to read this historical blog on Schiphol and KLM at the beginning Frido. You found some pretty nice pictures in the KLM archive again, not familiar to me. Especially the ones with the gravy track, the first terminal building and the interior of the KLM hotel are fine showing beautiful examples of images of the time. Do you happen to know if the main entrance to Schiphol East nowadays is build on this gravy track? It looks that way.

    • Frido Ogier

      Dear Jan,

      Thanks! I think so. If I ‘measure’ the distance from the bridge (where fort Schiphol once was) to the first sidestreet I think it’s the same location.

      Best regards,

      Frido

  3. jack van Rijn

    good to read the story about Schiphol I cant even get mine head around what it was like in the early day but I can remember zestien hoven near Rotterdam that was the same grass runway not till after the 2nd world war that zestien hoven was rebuilt and became a second airport with a concrete runway I was last In Holland in 2000 and I was perplexed what changes there where made on both airports it is only a shame KLM does not fly anymore to Australia I was on that last flight from Sydney to Amsterdam but I wish KLMal the success in the future

  4. Andre Soutelino

    Very interesting! I would like more post about Schiphol’s history. I saw a video about 100 years from Schiphol last Saturday. It was amazing! I would like to suggest KLM to write a book about 100 years from KLM and Schiphol.

    • Frido Ogier

      Dear Andre,

      that would be very nice. Maybe this will happen once… :-)

      Thanks for your compiment!

      Best regards,

      Frido

    • Marjan Vermij

      There are so many books already! At least one for every (special) anniversary, I’d say!
      As an (ex-)employee over the years I received many of those books, still on my bookshelf.

  5. Constant M C Swagemakers

    At the moment I’m receiving your BLOG twice! I DO NOT want to ‘unsubscribe’, in case you might delete BOTH. ‘One’ will do…Sorry, but I couldn’t find another way to communicate.

    • Frido Ogier

      Dear Constant,

      I will ask my colleague if she can slove this. Maybe you did subscribe twice?

      Kind regards,

      Frido

  6. Frank Fisher

    yes! More history please: 1930 to 1960

    • Frido Ogier

      Will do my best Frank! :-)

  7. Raymond de Jong

    Great reading and great pictures! Keep those stories coming. Amazing what has changed in 100 years….

  8. Michaella

    It’s such a wonderful article! Is the story of the rest 90-or-so years going to follow?? I’m curious…

    • Frido Ogier

      Thanks Michaella! I sure will try :-)

      Best regards,

      Frido

  9. Yvonne Wilkins

    Great piece of history! My great grandmother lived in the Haarlemmeer ! I remember watching the planes from the back of her kitchen window! The property later became part of the Schiphol we know today

    • Frido Ogier

      Nice memory Yvonne!

      Best regards,

      Frido

  10. Marjon Broeks

    Wat geweldig en wat een mooi beeld! die foto’s van het interieur van het restaurant en de passenger handling, echt geweldig!

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