Why do so many Dutch people love KLM?
What’s with those singing flight attendants? When KLM CEO Pieter Elbers joins a talk show, a singing employee passes by.
On March 18, Nienke Fitters sang You are the reason by Calum Scott in the studio of On 1, to put a ‘blue heart’ under the belt of her colleagues. After all, the airline has been hit hard by the corona crisis. Elbers, filmed in blue light, watched with satisfaction and was “very proud” afterwards. “That’s me on 30,000 colleagues, and also on Nienke.”
Eleven days later, Elbers was a guest at the program WNL On Sunday. Host Rick Nieman showed a video that had since gone viral: purser Marloes van der Meijs said goodbye to the passengers with an interpretation of When will I see you again from The Three Degrees. For example, she announced her present: “We have a blue heart and we don’t know when we can show that heart again.” Her action gave him “a sense of pride,” Elbers said after showing the video. “It actually shows the passion of aviation.” Nieman, State Secretary Mona Keijzer (CDA) and mayor of Utrecht Jan van Zanen looked on lovingly.
Blue heart. Pride. This story is about the love of KLM employees for their company, and the love of the Netherlands for KLM. Ask someone about his or her KLM feeling and you will get the answer: that you have boarded a KLM plane somewhere in the world and you already feel at home. It is as if the Dutch have internalized that marketing slogan. At least those Dutch people who grew up before the budget airlines came on the scene.
Air France-KLM is about to be rescued by the government. It would concern bank loans of 10 billion euros guaranteed by France and the Netherlands; eight billion for Air France, two billion for KLM. State aid will come anyway, the two finance ministers have been clear about that for weeks. That’s not just because of jobs that need to be preserved. That is also because KLM is a symbol of the Netherlands. Prime Minister Rutte mentioned one company in his TV speech from the Torentje in March. He talked about “national icons like KLM”. A national icon cannot perish. A national icon belongs to all of us.
Of course there is the glorious past. Last year, KLM celebrated its 100th anniversary as the oldest airline in the world still flying under its original name. The designation ‘Royal’ was already in place before KLM was officially founded.
Thomas van der Ree is a member of Winchester McFly, a collective of screenwriters. He is the lead writer of Flying Dutchmen, an ambitious drama series about KLM pioneer Albert Plesman and aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker that will be shown at AVROTROS next autumn. Van der Ree immersed himself in the first period of KLM, from 1919 to 1939. “What struck me most was the enthusiasm for aviation and the pride in KLM. When the Pelican returned from the Indies in 1933 after a fast record flight, on a cold December evening, there were 20,000 people at Schiphol! As if the Netherlands had become world champion.”
Plesman, says Van der Ree, did an excellent job of linking the interests of the country to the interests of the company. Plesman also saw the importance of strong visual advertising, something KLM has always attached great importance to. The posters with the ghost ship the Vliegende Hollander linked KLM aircraft to the VOC, then another symbol of national pride. The term ‘Hollands Glorie’ was eagerly used during the anniversary last year.
“From our small little country we fly beautifully all over the world.” This is how Esther te Pas, director of advertising agency DDB Unlimited, explains KLM’s national pride. Te Pas has been responsible for the KLM campaigns for ten years now. Thanks to the collaboration with Schiphol as a global hub, KLM’s network is much larger than its home market justifies. KLM normally flies to about 170 destinations, but due to the corona crisis, that number has been reduced to 57 this summer. Te Pas: “The Dutch are proud of their export products: flowers, DJs. KLM is part of that and connects us with the world.”
‘Connecting’ is a sentiment that KLM likes to capitalize on. DDB Unlimited made a KLM commercial last year with a baby who loves to travel in the lead role. The video ends with the caption: “Wherever you want to go in your life, we’re going there together.” KLM cleverly manages to combine commerce and idealism. Last year, Elbers used a statement by Plesman as the title for his Elsevier economics lecture: ‘The Ocean of the Air Unites all People’. KLM, the great connector.
More than other companies, KLM is surrounded by emotion. Flying evokes more feelings than producing steel or light bulbs. This is not only reflected in the relationship between the Netherlands and KLM, but also internally. KLM is not a family business, but it does have that image.
KLM is a large employer. To emphasize the economic importance – especially in this crisis – the number of employees in the reporting sometimes exceeds 30,000, but in the Netherlands there are 28,500 people employed. Togetherness and loyalty are much-vaunted characteristics of the ‘blue family’. Once inside, people like to stay: in 2018, almost 43 percent of employees worked at KLM for more than twenty years. In 2019, KLM was the preferred employer for highly educated people, according to research by magazine Intermediary. Working at KLM is passed down from generation to generation in many families. The commercial in honor of 100 years of KLM referred to this with daughters who successively become flight attendants. The last daughter, in the present, is captain.
In February 2019, Elbers’ position was at stake, because the new CEO of Air France-KLM wanted him gone. A petition to keep Elbers has been signed more than 25,000 times. The protest signs supplied by the works council (OR) showed blue hearts. The relationship between management and works council is good. Then NRC recently pointed out on a Saturday that Elbers, unlike his foreign colleagues, does not make a wage sacrifice, the Works Council chairman said on Monday in The Telegraph that the staff does not consider a wage sacrifice necessary.
The emphasis on solidarity makes the discussion with trade unions and the cabinet about cutting 1,500 to 2,000 temporary jobs painful. The priority now lies with permanent jobs, KLM announced internally. Scrapping the temporary jobs is necessary, ‘precisely to guide the company through this crisis as best as possible and to keep jobs for as many colleagues as possible’.
KLM’s top executives have traditionally come from the company. Elbers is the perfect example of this, he knows the company through and through. His predecessor Camiel Eurlings came from outside. It was one of the shortcomings as a KLM boss – there were more – that killed him in 2014. The family feeling has sectarian traits: a former captain who works to put a brake on aviation is called a hypocrite and polluter on Twitter.
Criticism of state aid
The fact that the whole of the Netherlands loves KLM deserves a qualification. Even before the corona crisis, KLM also faced the negative side of aviation for many people: damage to the environment, climate, health, living environment. That the company that invariably leads the political lobby against restrictions and taxes is now asking the same government for support, arouses resentment. Why is KLM generously supported, and the cultural sector only limited?
This week, four environmental organizations called on the cabinet to attach conditions with regard to sustainability to state aid. That support will come anyway, thinks Dewi Zloch, aviation campaign manager at Greenpeace. “That is already in pitchers. But there are good reasons to use this situation to change aviation. Do we want to keep the system with many transfer passengers? Does aviation bring us as much economically as the sector itself claims? If KLM continues as before, the Paris climate goals will be unattainable. Now is the time to intervene as a government. The longer we wait, the harder the landing.”
National pride plays no role for activists. A club like SchipholWatch, led by anonymous residents and very active on social media, regards KLM as a French company and Elbers as the head of the board in Paris. Formally, KLM was indeed taken over by Air France in 2004, while retaining its brand and identity. In practice, Elbers leads KLM as an autonomous company, more than the top of Air France-KLM would like.
For some KLM fans, pro-KLM automatically means anti-French. Because Air France performs worse than KLM and now needs more support, there are voices in favor of splitting KLM off and, if necessary, nationalizing it. That is not very realistic. A widely shared expectation is that this crisis in aviation will lead to more consolidation. Small companies will disappear, a few large combinations will remain. Financially, Air France-KLM is the weakest of the European top-5. No matter how beautiful the past is, and how great the national pride, KLM needs others to survive.