When humans turn 100-years-old, one of the most common questions they are asked is: “What’s the secret to a happy and successful life?”
The same question could easily be asked of an airline celebrating its centennial, and this was the first question PAX posed to officials representing KLM Royal Dutch Airlines on Thursday (Oct. 10th) at a Toronto reception held to mark KLM’s recent 100th anniversary.
“The key element in our success has been our entrepreneurial spirit,” Barbara van Koppen, SVP Corporate Center & General Counsel at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, told PAX.
van Koppen was referring to the spirit of Albert Plesman, the young Dutch aviation pioneer who founded KLM in 1919, a move that would ultimately connect the Netherlands to the world and the world to the Netherlands.
It’s a type of entrepreneurial grit that still ripples through the company today, but it’s just one part of the equation behind KLM’s 100 years of success, van Koppen explained.
“As an airline, we would be nothing without very loyal customers,” van Koppen said.
And: “We can’t have loyal customers without very loyal employees.”
Having the instinct of knowing how to adapt to sudden and extraordinary circumstances is also key to one's survival in the airline business, noted Bas Gerressen, senior vice-president for North America at Air France-KLM.
“You have to adapt quickly and see what’s coming at you,” Gerressen told PAX, recounting that infamous ash cloud that caused enormous air traffic delays in 2010 after a volcano erupted in Iceland.
That event, which was clearly beyond everyone’s control, is when “we started using social media to answer customers,” a practice at KLM that eventually turned into a 24/7 service, Gerressen said.
“We get energized out of these events. It keeps us going,” Gerressen said.
“It’s not every day that an airline turns 100”
Few airlines today can speak with the backing of 100 years of experience.
KLM is the oldest airline in the world still operating under its original name – a loud and sounding feat that took centre stage at Thursday’s reception on the fourth floor of Artscape Daniels Launchpad, where more than 100 industry partners, corporate accounts and travel advisors assembled to celebrate the Dutch airline.
“It’s not every day that an airline turns 100,” said Steven Larkin, director, sales - Canada for Delta Air Lines (which shares a joint venture with KLM and Air France).
Larkin suggested that the secret to KLM’s success lies in its commitment to providing world-class hospitality.
“The Dutch do a really nice job,” Larkin told PAX. “When you travel with KLM, you really feel like you’re part of the KLM family.”
KLM’s ceremonies officially kicked off in Amsterdam on Monday with a 100th anniversary bash at Schiphol’s Hangar 10, which PAX also covered.
There were centennial KLM cocktails by Bols based on the negroni (which also turns 100 this year), and “tiny raspberry tarts festooned with sugary KLM 100-stamped clouds,” PAX journalist Bert Archer reported.
That event also included the unveiling of KLM’s new 100th Delft house – a much-loved business class perk since 1952 – and updates on future plane and cabin designs, a project shared between KLM and the Dutch Technical University of Delft.
The Canadian connection
KLM is the third-largest private employer in the Netherlands, and the company shares a close, historical connection to Canada.
While KLM’s first-ever flight was in 1920, the airline’s inaugural flight between the Netherlands and Canada was 70 years ago when the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines crew boarded a Lockheed Constellation 747 to welcome passengers at Montreal’s Dorval airport on May 30th, 1949.
Since then, KLM has launched routes to Toronto (1974), Vancouver (1986), Calgary (2009) and Edmonton (2014).
The partnerships KLM has secured with Canadian carriers is also key to its global operations – a codeshare partnership with WestJet, for one, gives Canadians access to KLM’s flights across the board.
KLM’s 70 years in Canada, combined with its 100th birthday, is what called Vincent Etchebehere, general manager for Canada at Air France-KLM, called “a very special moment,” noting that KLM will continue to invest in the Canadian market.
By summer 2020, KLM will increase capacity from Canada to Amsterdam by six per cent year-over-year, and, more specifically, it will boost capacity by seven per cent between Toronto and Amsterdam, Etchebehere said.
Putting customers first “is our DNA,” Etchebehere told reporters.
KLM also touched on the importance of travel agents and how they are “a key part of our success,” as Mr. Gerressen put it.
“If we don’t have travel agents, we don’t have bookings,” Gerressen said. “The travel agents play a crucial role.”
Investing in a sustainable future
Forward-thinking sustainability practices has been a focus at KLM for years and it was a reoccurring discussion all week during it's 100-year festivities.
“It’s our commitment to take a leading role in making aviation more sustainable,” van Koppen told reporters on Thursday. “We have a responsibility to keep the planet livable for future generations.”
The Dutch carrier recently launched a Fly Responsibly campaign, which urges travellers to think about the environmental impact of flying before committing to a journey and to consider environmentally-friendly alternatives for short-haul travel, such as taking a train.
KLM also works with a Carbon Reduction Roadmap - the airline's current goal is to reduce the CO₂ per passenger by 20 per cent by 2020 (in comparison to 2011). And, so far, the airline is on track: by the end of 2018, it had already reduced carbon emissions by 17 per cent.
By 2030, KLM is aiming for a reduction of 15 per cent of its total CO₂ footprint (compared to 2005).
“We owe it to our next generations to take care of our planet and step up our efforts in sustainable aviation,” van Koppen said. “We have a very rich history we’re very proud of, but we’re also very committed to our future.”
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