Featured image: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

Deep Dive: The Story Behind KLM Subsidiary KLM Asia

DALLAS — The national flag carrier of the Netherlands and the world's oldest airline, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL), is one of the most iconic carriers due to its prestige and legendary blue livery.

Since 1971, the bright blue fuselage of all KL planes has been flying across the world along with the famous royal Dutch crown, representing the carrier's nationality and origins.

However, when we take a closer look at some aircraft, we can identify something interesting. Nine Boeing 777s are not painted like the rest of the KL fleet. The crown has disappeared, and a large "ASIA" brand is now showing itself in the tails of these airplanes.

We'll explore the story behind KL's subsidiary KLM Asia, its origins, why it was created, the main differences with its parent company, and its relevance in commercial aviation today.

Taiwan is home to two of the largest Asian airlines, EVA Air and China Airlines, which serve as key carriers to connect passengers to and from Taipei. Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

Early History

KLM Asia is a small, wholly-owned subsidiary of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which is registered in Taiwan. The airline was founded in October 1995 to fly passengers from Amsterdam to Taipei.

Why would a large airline like KLM set up a subsidiary on the other side of the world to operate flights to Taiwan instead of using its own aircraft and KLM brand?

Taiwan is a territory that the People's Republic of China does not recognize. These two countries fought a brutal civil war between 1927 and 1949, which resulted in cultural and political differences that split the country and forced the former government to exile to Taiwan.

Today, Taiwan and the PRC claim the entire territory of China (Mainland and the Island of Taiwan) as their own territory and only country, which has created a worldwide political division about which of the two governments should be recognized over the other.

As the years passed by, the People's Republic of China gained a powerful economic position and threatened all countries that recognized Taiwan as a sovereign territory with restrictions and sanctions.

Among those sanctions, one of the most influential for airlines was the ban on overflying and serving flights to all cities in Mainland China, such as Beijing (PEK) or Shanghai (PVG). This was a massive hit for European carriers, as they were about to lose a significant share of their Asian market by giving away such important destinations like PEK or PVG.

Because of that, and to maintain the possibility of flying to Taipei (TPE), a very profitable destination for KL, the Dutch carrier decided to create a subsidiary registered in Taiwan, which would separately operate flights from Amsterdam to Taipei to avoid any sanctions imposed by China.

The Boeing 747-400 had a vital role in developing KLM Asia. Seven of them flew with the subsidiary until 2017. Photo: Sharon Hahn Darling CC BY-SA 2.0

Fleet, Operations

To comply with KL's objectives for operating successful flights to Taiwan, KLM Asia needed to restrict its operations in terms of routes and aircraft usage.

First, all KLM flights from Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport (AMS) to Taipei-Taoyuan Airport (TPE) must have been operated by KLM Asia aircraft on all occasions, without exceptions. Additionally, no KLM Asia airplane had permission to overly Chinese airspace en route to Taipei. This was a significant inconvenience, as the shortest route between the two cities flew directly over China.

Because of that, the initial flights required a regularly scheduled stop at Bangkok-Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) in Thailand. Today, the stopover city has been changed to Seould-Incheon Airport (ICN) for a different reason. This, however, did not mean that KLM Asia planes could not be used on other KLM-branded flights.

This was a typical sight as these aircraft were based in Amsterdam, not Taipei. Of course, all flights operated by KLM Asia, no matter the destination, could not fly over or end up in mainland China.

KLM Asia began operating in October 1995 with the transfer of 4 Boeing 747-400 Combi airplanes, which were notable in that they could fly fewer passengers and more cargo by dividing the cabin depending on demand. Three more units were added in May 1999, April 2002, and December 2009, totaling 7 Jumbo Jets.

The Boeing 747 was crucial in KLM Asia's operations, but due to rising fuel costs and the airplane's high age, the last unit was retired from service in October 2017.

The backbone of the fleet, which today is the only aircraft that remains in KLM Asia's operations, is the Boeing 777. The subsidiary received nine units from its parent company (Seven Boeing 777-200ERs and two Boeing 777-300ERs), which arrived between February and July 2012, coinciding with the retirement of the first Boeing 747 of KLM Asia in January 2012.

The main difference between the KLM Asia livery and its mother company was removing the royal Dutch crown to avoid controversy. Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Main Differences With KLM

With the creation of KLM Asia, all aircraft transferred to this subsidiary needed to undergo a series of esthetical modifications to erase the most reminders of the Netherlands country and royal crown. By doing that, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines could defend itself from any potential restriction imposed by China by saying that KLM Asia was not Dutch but Taiwanese, even though it shared a base and basic livery with its mother company.

The first and most significant modification in KLM Asia's livery is the removal of the royal Dutch crown from KLM's logo both in the tail and front part of the fuselage, which was then substituted with the word "ASIA." The crown is one of the most iconic symbols of the airline and the entire Netherlands. As this symbol is political in nature, KLM had to remove it before commencing operations from Amsterdam to Taipei.

Also, when we look closer at the rear part of the fuselage, we notice that all aircraft registrations in the KLM Asia fleet lack the Netherlands and European Union flags. Once again, this was done to eliminate any relations with the airline's origin country.

Right now, the only unchangeable marks left by the Netherlands country on the airplanes are those registrations, as "PH-" is the registration prefix assigned to the government. Further, to make KLM Asia more familiar to the Taiwanese, all fleet aircraft features a translation of "KLM Airlines Asia" in Chinese next to the logo on the fuselage for all Asian passengers taking the flight.

The rest of the logos and symbols are maintained, like the Air France-KLM Group and Skyteam logos, as well as the iconic "The Flying Dutchman" slogan written at the rear of every aircraft's fuselage.

Apart from erasing the royal Dutch crown from the livery, all KLM Asia planes also lack the Netherlands and European Union flags next to their registrations. Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

Current Operations

Moving forward in time till today, we can see that the KLM Asia subsidiary has now only remained in existence practically as a brand, as the carrier is no longer following any of the rules set by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines or the People's Republic of China to prevent any issue with the grant of overflight and landing rights in the mainland.

Flights from Amsterdam to Taipei are operated twice a week today, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with an intermediate stop at Seoul-Incheon Airport (ICN) on both ways. KLM flight 845 departs Schiphol Airport at 17:30. It regularly flies over Chinese airspace not only with KLM Asia aircraft but also with regular KLM Royal Dutch Airlines airplanes, which are not always Boeing 777-200s, but also Boeing 787-9s, of which the subsidiary owns none of them.

On the other hand, after the Chinese Government allowed intercontinental travel to the country and lifted most sanitary restrictions last year, KLM resumed flights to the People's Republic of China. Specifically, the airline now connects Amsterdam with Beijing (PEK), Shanghai (PVG), and Hong Kong (HKG) many times a week again.

These three routes are operated by Boeing 777 and 787 family aircraft, and the assignment of KLM Asia aircraft has now also been included. Since the start of flights to China, KLM Asia aircraft have landed five times in the country.

Even though relations between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan remain broken, and there is considerable tension in terms of commercial aviation, not only have restrictions been lifted, but we can also see today dozens of China Airlines (CI) and EVA Air (BR) flights scheduled daily between Taiwan and China and vice versa.

Swissair Asia was also inaugurated for the same reason as KLM Asia: to secure its overflight and landing rights in the PRC. Photo: Aero Icarus CC BY-SA 2.0

KLM Asia Was Not Alone

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was not the only carrier to consider establishing a separate subsidiary to fly to Taiwan. The granting of overflight and landing rights in China has always had a dire value for European airlines, and many of them did everything to avoid losing them. Here are some of the five carriers that ended up adopting this method.

Air France Asie (AF) operated flights from Paris to Taipei via Hong Kong on esthetically modified airplanes that had removed the red color of the tail logo, replacing it with the same blue as the rest. It operated Boeing 747-400s and Airbus A340-200s but ceased operations after flights to Taipei were canceled in 2004. Its cargo operations also stopped flying afterward in 2007.

Japan Asia Airways (EG) was founded in 1975. It is the subsidiary that operates JAL flights from Tokyo (NRT), Osaka (KIX), and Nagoya (NGO) to Taipei. EG's fleet received modifications, like a logo change in the tail and fuselage, replacing the famous "JAL" with "JAA." EG operated Boeing 747, 76, Douglas DC-8, and DC-10 aircraft before its merger with Japan Airlines (JL) in 2008.

Australia Asia Airlines (IM) served as the Taiwanese subsidiary of Qantas Airways (QF). Its small fleet of two Boeing 747SP and one Boeing 767 operated flights from Australia to Taiwan from 1990 to 1996. Its livery and logo had much more drastic differences from its parent company, which did not conserve QF's name or characteristic kangaroo.

British Asia Airways (BR) has connected London Heathrow Airport (LHR) with Hong Kong and Taipei for eight years since 1993. It operated an exclusive jumbojet fleet of three Boeing 747-400s painted in the "Landor" livery without the British coat of arms but with the Chinese characters "Ying Ya," meaning "British Asia." BR also stopped flying and merged with British Airways (BA) after the carrier ceased flights to Taipei in 2001.