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The History Behind the World’s Oldest Airline

Take a look back at KLM's history on its 104th birthday

A KLM 777 departing in 2019. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

KLM, which stands for Koninklijk Luchtvaart Maatschappij, is celebrating its 104th birthday on October 7, 2023. The Dutch national airline is the oldest commercial airlines in the world, and its history dates back to 1919. Its birthday is also marked by its oldest tradition, the release of a new Delft blue house. A new house is released on every birthday of the airline, and the 104 houses so far are mostly modeled after real houses in different parts of the country and beyond, from canal houses in Amsterdam to Dutch colonial buildings in Aruba.

This year, the Delft blue house is designed based the Valkenburg can de Geul station in Limburg, situated in the south of the Netherlands near the border with Germany. KLM wishes to celebrate the 170-year history of the station and sends a message encouraging train travel alongside air travel.

On this significant day for the airline, we will also walk down on the memory lane and take a look at the key developments in the airline over the years that shaped the KLM today.


KLM was founded in 1919 in Amsterdam by Albert Plesman and a group of Dutch businessmen. The first flight took off in May 1920 from London to Amsterdam using an Airco DH-16. Long-haul operation started in 1924, one of the first in the world, from Amsterdam to Jakarta. The service was the longest regular scheduled service in the world for over 10 years until WWII broke out in 1939.

A KLM Cityhopper Embraer E190.
(Photo: AirlineGeeks)

Its network grew rapidly and, using Douglas DC-3s, services were established to Sydney. KLM also flew transatlantic as far as Curaçao and had a fairly extensive European network. Services were all paused as WWII started and the company had limited operations during the years at war.

After WWII

After WWII, KLM started rebuilding its network. It began flying between Amsterdam and New York City. The airline also became a pioneer in arctic flying as they opened the route between Amsterdam and Tokyo using DC-7. During the same period, KLM received its first jet engine airplane, the DC-7, and used it on its transatlantic flight to New York.

The fleet upgrades continued into the 21st century, with KLM taking up large number of Boeing 747s and McDonnell Douglas MD-11s. KLM was known for its iconic fleet of B747 Combis, a design that allowed the aircraft to carry more cargo by removing the passenger section near the rear of the aircraft. As for MD11s, KLM operated its very last passenger flight in the world on the type in 2014.

Recent History

KLM acquired stakes in several foreign airlines during the peak of its growth, including shares in Northwest and Kenyan Airways. The acquisition of Northwest shares allowed KLM to establish an extensive North American network with its partner. The alliance continued as Northwest was acquired by Delta, and a transatlantic joint venture was later formed between Delta, KLM and Air France.

A KLM Boeing 747 taxis at Los Angeles International Airport.
(Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ben Suskind)

In 2004, KLM merged with Air France to form Air France-KLM, one of the largest airline groups in the world. The merger meant that a dual-hub system is adapted, with the group channelling passengers through both Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam-Schiphol. KLM also formally joined the SkyTeam alliance in the same year.

A number of joint ventures are also formed and proposed as KLM strengthens its position in the commercial airlines industry in the 2010s:

  • Transatlantic joint venture with Delta, Air France and Virgin Atlantic.
  • Europe-Asia joint venture with China Southern and Xiamen Airlines
  • Europe-Asia joint venture with Air France, China Eastern and Virgin Atlantic
  • Joint venture with Kenyan Airways, who KLM owned 26 percent stake at one point. The joint venture is no longer in place.

Looking Ahead

The future of KLM is looking bright as its profit soars and growth back on track. With the recent news of Air France-KLM’s acquisition of SAS and its membership of SkyTeam, the group will gain greater market share and increase its competitiveness. On the other hand, its recent order of A350s will inject the hardware needed for renewal and growth into KLM’s fleet. However, there are also many challenges ahead for KLM, with fuel price remaining unstable and the Dutch government capping the total flights at Schiphol airport. It will be interesting to see how KLM will perform in the coming years.

Anthony Bang An


  • Anthony Bang An

    Anthony is an airline enthusiast who also loves traveling. He grew up around the world from St. Louis to Singapore and now lives in Amsterdam. He loves long-haul flying and finds peace in the sound of engine cruising. Fresh out of high school, he aspires to be working in the aviation industry and share his passion for the sky. 

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