You’ve probably seen their bright blue airplanes sitting at a terminal (especially if you’ve ever been to the Netherlands), but did you know that KLM is in fact the the world’s oldest airline?

Well, it is. It’s been operating continuously since 1919, and it now has flights to about 135 airports around the globe.

I’ve had plenty of fresh cheese sandwiches served to me by smiling flight attendants in blue, but it hasn’t always been that way. Haven’t you ever wondered how it began?

KLM wing on the world's oldest airline
Photo by Alex Hoskinson

Wait, What Does KLM Stand For?

Before we get any further, we should clear up this whole acronym situation. After all, what does KLM stand for? As any Dutch person could tell you, those are the first three letters of Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, which obviously means Royal Aviation Company. The ability to be called royal is thanks to Queen Wilhelmina, and she gave this title nearly a month before the airline was actually created. Always the forward thinker.

In my humble opinion, using the letters instead of the full name was a wise decision. I can’t really imagine becoming the world’s oldest airline with that tongue twister of a title.

Not the First, Just the Oldest

To be clear, KLM is the world’s oldest airline, but it wasn’t the first company offering commercial air travel. There were multiple others (operating airplanes and Zeppelins), but none of them were able to stand the test of time. Except KLM, of course.

Foundation of These Flying Dutchmen

It started to become obvious that flight was the transport of the future, and an aviation exhibition in Amsterdam spurred some Dutch businessmen to pool their money together and start an airline. They officially registered the company on 7 October, 1919, but the inaugural flight didn’t take off until 17 May, 1920. This was only a short trip from London, but it proved successful enough to launch their first intercontinental flight to Jakarta in 1924.

If you want to get a visual explanation of their history, go through the decades with this series of videos by KLM.

Evolution of the World’s Oldest Airline

I could write a whole textbook talking about the business and technological developments that the airline has gone through, but no one wants that. Instead, let me just tell you that the KLM reach continuously expanded (despite the disturbances caused by a world war), and they launched their first jet in 1960. In 1999, their Environmental Management System enabled them to become the first airline to earn the ISO 14001 certification. And 2010 saw the end of their final turboprop aircraft (presumably to clear some space for their new 787 Dreamliners).

If you really want the play-by-play of their corporate history, check out the timeline they put together to show off.

KLM Merger with Air France

After 70 years of flying solo, KLM decided they were a little lonely hopping around above the clouds. Fortunately, their friendly neighbors to the south felt the same way, and KLM merged with Air France. This little example of European collaboration has allowed for both airlines to remain successful in an extremely competitive industry.

The World’s Oldest Airline KLM planes sitting at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam
Photo by Alex Hoskinson

Dutch tradition in the Clouds

It’s been hundreds of years since the Dutch made a name for themselves by sailing around the world and conducting business, so is it really surprising that they took to the skies so successfully? This sort of thing is in their blood.

In case you have any doubt, the world’s oldest airline will hit its 100 year anniversary in about three years. Are you going to book a KLM ticket on that special day? I am, and I’m going for a window seat.


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