Two pioneering airlines born on a 7 October

7 October was the birth date of KLM and Air France, the first in 1919, bearing the name Koninklijke Luchtvaartmaatschappij for The Netherlands and Colonies, and the second in 1933, resulting from the combination of five French airlines, Air Union, Air Orient, Société Générale de Transport Aérien (SGTA), CIDNA and Aéropostale.

Both count among the few existing airlines to have been founded before World War II. Both were pioneering players in civil aviation.

In 1920, KLM operated its first flight between London and Amsterdam with an Airco DH 16 piloted by Jerry Shaw, KLM’s first official pilot. As from 1921, the airline introduced regular routes that progressively served Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Paris, London, then Bremen, Copenhagen and Malmö, with Fokker aircraft.

Starting in 1929, KLM created a regular long-distance route between the Netherlands and Indonesia, a Dutch colony at the time. Next, the Dutch carrier looked West and in 1934, created a trans-Atlantic service between Amsterdam and Curaçao, in the Dutch Indies, operated by a Fokker F-XVIII.

Meanwhile, in France, several private airlines embarked on their adventure in commercial aviation with a particular focus on transport of mail. Among them, the Lignes Latécoère, created in 1919, became Aéropostale in 1927.

In 1924, Jean Mermoz flew the Toulouse-Barcelona route, over the Pyrenees. Next came Casablanca-Dakar and the regular crossing of the desert in 1926, the first non-stop flight between Toulouse and Saint-Louis of Senegal in 1927, the launch of a service over the Andes Cordillera in 1929, and finally the first Atlantic crossings starting in 1930, firstly under the banner of Aéropostale and subsequently Air France.

1945 – 1960 First move towards a global network

Suspended during the war, flights were resumed by both airlines. In France, like many companies considered to be of general interest, Air France was nationalized.

As early as 1946, Air France and KLM created their first regular services between Europe and North America by linking New York out of Paris and Amsterdam. The flight, including stop-overs, lasted nearly 24 hours. The flight was operated by DC4, a four-engined aircraft which had stood the test of wartime, and was able to carry some forty passengers at 360 km/h.

At the same time, Air France and KLM were equipping themselves with Lockheed Constellations, which Air France inaugurated on the Paris-New York route in 1947. The flight time lasted fifteen hours and did not involve a stop-over on the return trip. The two airlines, operating the same aircraft to similar destinations, offered one other mutual aid.

In 1958, they inaugurated a new route to Tokyo – the polar route, with a stop-over in Anchorage.

1960 – 1980 The jet plane revolution

The civil aviation boom came up against the technical constraints inherent to propeller planes. Everything changed with the arrival of the first jet planes, at the end of the 1950s.

From then on, the Atlantic Ocean could be crossed in very little time, with aircraft travelling at speeds of above 900km/h: the Boeing 707s and the Douglas DC-8s. In 1958, Air France brought into service the first Caravelles for European flights as well as to North Africa and the Middle East, while at the same time operating the first Boeing 707s which reduced the Paris-New York flight time to 8 hours. KLM opted for Douglas DC-8s.

These new aircraft imposed new infrastructure. Increasingly wealthy passengers wanted to travel to far-away places. In 1952, Air France transferred its base from Le Bourget airport to Orly, and in 1961, it set up its operations and workshops at Orly South.

The trend was similar in the Netherlands, and in 1967, KLM operated its first flight from the brand new airport at Schiphol, near Amsterdam. The technical progress in aircraft and airport infrastructure improvements went increasingly hand in hand with the boom in traffic and airlines. In 1970, Air France began operating Boeing 707s with a seating capacity for some 500 passengers on its long-haul routes. KLM followed suit in 1971.

The era of the wide-bodies and mass air transport had begun. Orly could no longer cater to current demand and so, in 1974, Air France moved into the new Paris-Charles de Gaulle 1 terminal, followed by CDG 2 in 1982.

In 1976, Air France introduced the supersonic jet Concorde, firstly on the Paris-Rio, Paris-Caracas and Paris-Washington routes, followed by Paris-New York in 1977, connecting the two cities in 3 hours and 45 minutes.

1980 – 2000 First national consolidations

As from the 1980s, air space opened up to competition, with air travel becoming increasingly accessible to more and more people. The world was within everyone’s reach.

In 1989, for the first time in the history of air transport, an alliance was reached: KLM and the US carrier Northwest Airlines merged to offer their customers convenient access to both their networks. A first “open skies” agreement was reached in 1991 between the Netherlands and the United States, allowing for all KLM and Northwest Airlines flights between Europe and the United States to be operated on a joint-venture basis starting in 1993.

Air France took over UTA in 1990. The two airlines merged two years later, making the new group the main shareholder of Air Inter, the airline specializing in domestic flights in France, in which it owned 72% of the capital. Six years later, Air Inter became Air France Europe, before being taken over by Air France in 1997.

Air France’s capital was open to private companies early in 1999. Its shares were listed on the Paris Stock Exchange for the first time on 22 February 1999.

During the last decade of the 20th century, KLM also changed and modified its structure. In 1991, it founded its regional airline, KLM Cityhopper, by merging NLM Cityhopper and Netherlines, and increased its stake in Transavia, from 40% to 80%.

The two airlines now benefited from a comprehensive network combining long-haul services and domestic routes. What was the best way to leverage these synergies? To answer this question, in 1992, KLM created the first European hub to connect its medium and short-haul flights at Schiphol airport.

Air France followed suit the following year by setting up a hub to connect its medium-haul and long-haul flights at Paris-Charles de Gaulle.

2000-2010 – Global consolidations and alliances

In an open world, where competition is growing and getting fiercer (the « open skies » agreement between France and the United States took place in 2001), airlines needed to offer an increasing number of destinations and services. Air France further beefed up its structure by integrating, in 2000, Regional Airlines, Flandre Air, Proteus, BritAir and CityJet to create its regional centre. However, action was presently required on an international scale.

The first solution has been to team up with complementary airlines and pool networks to offer the customers of each airline easy and transparent access to the destinations served by the partners. This is the principle of the SkyTeam alliances, for passenger transport, and SkyTeam Cargo, for cargo operations, launched in 2000 by Air France, Aeromexico, Delta Airlines and Korean Air. SkyTeam has continued to expand ever since. Alitalia and CSA Czech Airlines joined SkyTeam in 2001, followed by KLM and its American partners Northwest Airlines and Continental in 2004, and the Russian carrier Aeroflot in 2006. The following year, China Southern Airlines joined SkyTeam, the first alliance to welcome an airline from Mainland China. Air Europa, Kenya Airways, the Romanian airline TAROM and Vietnam Airlines also added their networks to SkyTeam, which has doubled its flights and destinations on offer over the past ten years.

A second, complementary solution has been to combine strengths in a more close-knit fashion; this is what Air France and KLM decided to do in 2003. On 30 September, the two airlines announced their intended merger via Air France’s international public offering (IPO) for KLM shares. The IPO was launched on 5 April 2004 on the Paris Euronext and Amsterdam markets as well as on the New York Stock Exchange. This operation which transferred the majority of Air France’s stock to the private sector by dilution of the French States’ stake resulted in the French company’s privatization.

The leading European air transport Group

The Air France KLM Group was born. The Group preserved the prestigious brands of both airlines while combining their strengths. A new adventure was about to begin: that of the construction of a leading group in Europe, bringing together teams, skills, technical, commercial and industrial resources around a joint ambition – to win over and retain customers.

Synergies were rapidly generated. For example, in 2005, the Air France Cargo and KLM Cargo marketing and sales teams were integrated into a single structure, the Joint Cargo Team. In 2005, the two airlines’ joint frequent flyer programme, Flying Blue, was launched.

The two hubs at Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam Schiphol functioned in tandem, and the networks leveraged their complementarities in order to meet fluctuating demand with maximum flexibility.

In 2007, the Group launched Transavia France for medium-haul flights to leisure destinations out of Paris-Orly. In 2008, it took over the Dutch cargo airline Martinair, in which KLM already held a 50% stake, and in 2009 acquired 25% of Alitalia’s capital, which thus became a privileged partner.

The power of the Group and its alliances allows it to mobilize top-quality infrastructures. In 2007, a new boarding satellite (S3), christened “the Parisian Gallery”, exclusively dedicated to Air France-KLM and the SkyTeam alliance, was opened. Dedicated in priority to ensuring rapid connections between short-medium haul and long-haul flights, this satellite allows for the simultaneous boarding of six A380 super jumbos.

The alliance strategy initiated by the two airlines continued under the Group’s aegis. A major agreement was thus reached in May 2009: Air France KLM and the US airline Delta Airlines created a joint venture to jointly operate their trans-Atlantic routes, by sharing revenue and costs. Alitalia joined the JV the following year, making it the largest trans-Atlantic joint venture at the present time.

A similar logic presided over the joint-venture agreement concerning the sharing of revenues on the Paris-Guangzhou route between Air France and China Southern in November 2010.

A reactive and responsible Group in the face of challenges

The global economic crisis is acutely affecting the air transport sector. The group is addressing this challenge by investing in and modernizing its offer and reorganizing certain activities such as cargo operations. A fleet upgrade policy is underway; the group’s first Airbus A380 made its inaugural flight on 23 November 2009.

The Air France-KLM history is now being written in the sky and online, with an enhanced connected offering and social media presence. Artificial intelligence and exclusive apps are the signature of a Group at the forefront of innovation.

In 2012, the group set out to restore its competitiveness and re-position its offer. Air France and KLM have installed new cabins on their medium and long-haul aircraft and
continue to put greater emphasis on customer service and high quality service. To modernize their long-haul fleet, the two companies have introduced the Boeing 787, the latest-generation aircraft which is more fuel-efficient and cleaner, featuring brand new travel cabins and Wi-Fi connection. Air France has restructured its medium-haul offer and has launched regional airline HOP!, while developing the activity of its low-cost subsidiary, Transavia. Joon, Air France’s little sister, which came into being a few years later in 2017, offers customers a new-generation travel experience by Air France.

Following a decade of joint efforts, the group can be proud of its achievements. It is currently a leader in each of its three main areas of activity – passenger transport, cargo and aeronautical maintenance. Moreover, as a committed player to responsible air transport, it is recognized as a leader in its sector in terms of sustainable development.