AvGeeks in Heaven: Behind the Scenes at KLM With MegaDo
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Welcome to what may be the single biggest AvGeek event of the entire year.
Once a year, for the past eight years, MegaDo has given AvGeeks a behind-the-scenes look into some of the West’s busiest airports. Last year, TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig attended the organization’s Star Alliance program, which brought attendees to airports central to that alliance’s European presence — namely Brussels and Vienna, among a few others, where they ate, flew and relaxed in style.
This year, MegaDo is covering the SkyTeam alliance — home of the likes of Delta, KLM/Air France, Air Europa, Vietnam Airlines and others — for the first time. The program started in Seattle, but TPG didn’t join until Europe, at SkyTeam’s headquarters, and the airport with the most SkyTeam airlines of any in the world: Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS.) You’re probably not going to get the pronunciation of Schiphol right if you’re not Dutch, but try anyway.
You don’t need to speak fluent Dutch to enjoy the behind-the-scenes visit to KLM’s headquarters we got, though: 100 happy AvGeeks, including Dee Diaz, the lucky winner of a TPG contest to come fly to Megado with us.
Things kicked off with a reception dinner hosted by SkyTeam at the W Hotel in central Amsterdam, plus a chat with SkyTeam CEO Kristin Colvile and Mauro Oretti, the alliance’s VP of Sales and Marketing.
And this morning—early—the real fun began, beginning with a tour of Amsterdam’s FloraHolland flower market and one of the coolest airports in the world: Amsterdam Schiphol.
Because this is Holland, world capital of the flower trade, we had to check out a facility unique to Amsterdam: Royal FloraHolland, essentially the stock exchange for flowers. We did that while already decked out in the special Megado day-glo vest (maybe I should be an airport ramp worker for Halloween this year?)
Started in 1911, FloraHolland is the product of flower growers who sought to join forces to optimize the best possible market positioning for their products. In other words: they wanted to create a market place in Europe’s largest flower distributing nation. And today, 107 years later, FloraHolland is the biggest consolidated marketplace for flowers, and moves millions of “stems” each day through its immense warehouse space. From 6 am to 10 am, the place is buzzing with carts zipping around, delivering crates of flowers to particular racks based upon their destination. They get to fly on cargo planes all over the world, of course. Besides the Netherlands, Kenya and Ethiopia are the biggest exporters of flowers to Europe, and Ecuador and Colombia are the biggest to the US.
At a presentation after our facility tour, we learned that 20% of flowers are transported by plane, 78% by bus, and only 1% by boat to FloraHolland. So much is by bus because 70% of flowers in FloraHolland come from the Netherlands. And how’s this for a fun fact: It is some 30-45 days between harvesting the flowers to the consumer. To do this, flowers are transported at near-freezing! As for the air freight, some 38 flights are flown per week from Kenya to Netherlands for flowers. These cargo 747s are basically packed to brim with flowers.
In an effort to streamline processeand to keep it as sustainable as possible, KLM/Air France and FloraHolland have come up with packing and travel standards using reams of data to make sure the footprint is as small as possible.
… but Then, Jet Engines
After FloraHolland, the sun was up, and it was time for the airport. Oh yes.
We were greeted by a flight attendant who also works in PR and a current KLM purser, who guided us through the KLM engine-repair shop. There, engineers maintain engines for KLM and other airline customers from around the world — from Xiamen Air to GOL and Blue Air.
Immediately, I was transported back to Tupelo, Mississippi, home of Universal Asset Management. Like UAM, this is a for-profit repair facility, where repair teams work round the clock to one-up their nearly 40 competitors in speed, quality of service and price.
This particular facility handles engines for 737s, 747s, 787s, A320s, A330s and a few others. The 777 engines, however, are maintained in Paris by Air France. It’s nothing personal — that’s just how the labor gets broken out. Most parts from Europe come in by truck; otherwise, they’re flown in to Schiphol. The techs here also getting trained on the new LEAP engines for the new A320neo and 737MAX.
It takes 60 to 100 days to repair an engine. In that time, airlines use spare engines to cover.
According to the KLM engineers who spoke to us, the 737’s engines are among the best, providing nine years of service before major repairs are necessary. Recycling is a big concern: even the water used to wash the engines is reused once contaminants are removed.
After our time at the engine shop, it was time to check out the planes those engines are attached to — including one of the few jets left that use four of them, a KLM 747-400, This one was in the “old” livery, making it an AvGeek favorite.
Where Planes Get Fixed
At Schiphol, aircraft are taken to hangar 12 for “A checks” — in other words, light repairs. B and C checks are far more thorough, and a D check, occurring every 6 to 10 years, means the plane gets basically taken apart and put together again. An A check includes things like replacing oil, ensuring the cleanliness and and full functionality of seats, washing the aircraft, and so on. In this particular hangar, they do this for 787 Dreamliners and 737s. KLM has a lot of 737s, but on Monday there was just the 787. With a 777 and 747 in the background, I sure didn’t mind.
Aircraft are here for just brief periods of time: 12-18 hours. Sometimes technical teams work overnight to get them ready by the first thing in the morning. A plane on the ground makes no money, so time is paramount.
This is the airplane registered PH-BHD, one of KLM’s first (of now 14) 787-9s.
It was incredible to get such an up close and personal look at this beautiful airplane — especially in the iconic KLM blue.
Dee, our contest winner, is a very well-traveled realtor based in Miami, and a loyal TPG reader, with a hefty stash of American Express points and Delta SkyMiles. He’s also a pretty serious AvGeek, very happy to be checking out a Dreamliner from so close.
And then we got a look inside… at the advanced 787 flight deck.
The crew rest area: In the front…
And the larger one in the very aft of the cabin.
Plus the beautiful business-class cabin — a good redemption of your Amex points to sit in this reverse-herringbone seat to Europe.
And the economy cabin in the rear.
As Good as It Gets: Schiphol Driving Tour
This is truly what AvGeek dreams are made of. After clearing a security checkpoint to get access airside at Schiphol, our convoy of MegaDo buses was escorted by several Schiphol security vehicles around the perimeter of the airport, past the vast cargo aprons, through the intricate gate areas, around several active runways, and concluded at the fire safety facility near the center of the airport. The weather was perfect.
Our guide for this portion of the day explained that they used to haul jet fuel with tanker trucks at AMS, a dangerous activity near population centers. Nowadays, like many major international airports, it’s all done through a vast underground pipeline network.
At any given moment, 1 million gallons are running under the airport through these underground pipelines, and some 1.5 billion liters of jet fuel, or 400 million gallons, are used annually.
Schiphol’s runways are 1.5 meters, or almost five feet, thick. The top is composed of anti-skid material to keep the high-speed movements of jet aircraft as safe as possible, like the Cathay Pacific 777-300ER pictured below, especially in a place as windy as Amsterdam.
28t dedicated cargo airlines operate through AMS. Even some Chinese cargo carriers hub in Amsterdam. Crews see lots of flowers, smartphones and pharmaceuticals going through here.
40% of the Netherlands’ import/export is through Schiphol. More and more passengers jets are carrying cargo in their holds; the A350 and 787 have especially large cargo holds to accommodate this— and the A380s are relatively quite small. Our guide told us this could explain why Airbus is having such a tough time selling them.
Cargo also travels in the back of rare “combined” aircraft like this 747-400 Combi. The rear third of the main deck is dedicated to freight, oaded through a giant door on the port side in the back. To spot one of those rare Combis in the wild, look at the left side: If you see the outline of a very, very large door behind the wing, you’ve got one.
Schiphol has 90 gates, serving roughly 100 airlines, all through one interconnected terminal.
At one point, we had to stop short for a Qatar 777. Unsurprisingly, aircraft always have the right of way. Pretty cool!
A random fun fact: one of the largest train stations in the Netherlands is the one below AMS. It’s huge, and it’s all interconnected. Dutch transit makes Americans look bad at it.
No, not for real. Things were indeed on fire, but only as a demonstration. We pulled up to the “firefly” — the second-largest training aircraft in the world, only outdobe by Dubai’s A380 mockup.
There are three fire stations at AMS — regulations require that fire trucks be able to reach the end of every runway within three minutes. These trucks can move. Our fire safety official instructed us to stand clear as they ignited the fake 747 and trucks rushed to put out the flames.
Trucks use foam and a chemical to suffocate the flame. And considering it’s jet fuel we’re talking about here, it goes out quick.
After the main fire is under control, firefighters hop out and use hoses to cover the other areas.
The trucks have eight large wheels that can even maneuver on the dirt that surrounds the airport. These vehicles will soon be replaced but they looked pretty futuristic to me.
Soon enough we were handed boarding passes for the next day, headed to Prague, Palma de Mallorca and Barcelona. Three countries, 24 hours — just another day for frequent-flying AvGeeks.
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