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5/21/1946: KLM's Maiden Transatlantic Flight

DALLAS – Today, in 1946, a KLM (KL) DC-4 took off from Amsterdam bound for New York. It was the first European airline to fly across the Atlantic.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ North Atlantic route network is still one of the main gateways between the two continents. According to the carrier, Amsterdam (AMS) to New York City (JFK) flights normally operate 17 times a week, with an average of two flights per day.

Two posters promoting New York. Left: the 1950s. Right: 1948. Image: KLM

History of the Amsterdam-New York Route

Albert Plesman, KL’s first president, had a long-held dream of starting scheduled service between Amsterdam and New York. In a nutshell, airlines in the US had established a degree of protectionism, and they were not about to welcome an outsider like KL with open arms.

Finally, with the aid of some serious diplomatic talent, the Netherlands and the US were able to reach an agreement on bilateral civil aviation, enabling KL to fly the Amsterdam-New York route.

KLM began a series of test flights in January 1946, and by May of that year, the carrier was ready to fly across the pond. The DC-4 ‘de Rotterdam’, a four-engine plane with seating for forty-four passengers, took off from Schiphol with a delegation of government officials, journalists, KL employees, and a single businessman bound for the Big Apple.

Layovers in Glasgow and Gander, Newfoundland, were included on the first flights. Furthermore, we needed to arrange a few diversion airports so that we would have somewhere to land in the event of bad weather. Although speed was essential, safety was always paramount.

The KLM DC-4 ‘de Rotterdam’ arrives in New York for the first time. Photo: KLM

Route Frequency, Capacity

21 hours of flight were included in the overall travel time of 25 and a half hours. The service began with two weekly flights. However, the route was so successful that KL had to add another 33 flights in 1946 alone. Also that year alone, KL carried 6,503 passengers on the route.

With the May 21 flight, KL expanded its European network to include the United States, the Netherlands, and inland countries. The route was a huge hit right away. To meet the rising demand, the Dutch airline deployed a brand-new Constellation L-049 come September ’46.

The number of flights increased over the years, and by 1950, KL was flying to New York every day of the week. The route was a huge success, and the airline was proud to add “a real feather in its cap.”

Civil aviation was changing slowly but inexorably during those years. Passengers were evolving as well. Aircraft were becoming larger, allowing airlines to offer more space. But with the introduction of Tourist Class and, later, Economy Class flying became accessible to a larger population. This new breed of air travelers was first introduced by KL on this North Atlantic route, where the airline was also using new aircraft types.

At the time, KL began to launch new aircraft on a regular basis on these North Atlantic routes. The first flight of the DC-8, KL’s first jet aircraft, was to New York, as was the first flight of the Boeing 747-200, the airline’s first wide-body jet. This went hand in hand with the expansion of capacity.

The airline would see the North Atlantic route’s potential develop time and time again, behaving accordingly, as KL’s Corporate Communications editor Frido Ogier points out.

The DC-8, PH-DCG at New York International Airport before it was renamed John F Kennedy International Airport. Photo: KLM

North Atlantic Expansion

The number of destinations along the route did not rise rapidly at first. Montreal was added to the list in 1949, and Houston and Anchorage were added in 1957 as stopovers on the Pole Path. KL bought landing rights in Chicago, Toronto, and Los Angeles in the 1970s.

But according to Ogier, it was in the 1980s and 1990s that KL made the most progress. When the Netherlands and the US signed the Open Skies Agreement, it was a huge step forward and a crucial first step towards a new collaborative initiative.

And so, in 1993, the EU gave its consent when the US Department of Transportation granted antitrust immunity (ensuring that there was no monopoly along a particular route that could be harmful to travelers or competitors). All of this made it much easier to work more closely with Northwest Airlines, KL’s strategic partner at the time. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Legacy of the Amsterdam-New York Route

KLM saw the New York route’s immense potential from the beginning. Yes, it was a status symbol, says Ogier, but it was also more than that. The growth of Schiphol in the postwar years, as well as the economic importance of cooperation with the US, grew steadily. And so, KL’s New York office was to be located on Fifth Avenue.

In 1959, KL moved to the corner of 49th Street and 5th Avenue, making it the single largest office that any airline had in New York at the time. “KLM had put itself on the map in The Big Apple.”

Sources: 70 Years to New York, the Big Apple of KLM’s Eye, KLM

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