Block's Third Way: Air Holland
Air Holland was the brainchild of Johan N. Block. Block had long term experience in the Dutch airline market having assisted the growth of Martinair and, after seven years there, split to start up Transavia. He sold out of Transavia in the mid-70s and after dallying with the executive jet arena decided to start what would become the third charter airline in the Netherlands – Air Holland (AHD).
Unsurprisingly neither Martinair or Transavia were keen to see Air Holland take to the skies. Although Block’s original plan was presented to the Dutch aviation authorities, the Rijks Luchtvaart Dienst (RLD), in 1978, and backed by 10 tour operators, it wasn’t until September 1983 that the airline was finally granted a license.
Even then the license only allowed for operations from Rotterdam and Maastricht, not Amsterdam. Further delays, caused by the existing operators, meant that Air Holland didn’t actually start operations until April 2, 1985. It did so from Amsterdam, getting around the original restrictions thanks to the equipment it was using. The original license said it could only operate from Amsterdam when it needed to use the airport’s longer runways. Block cunningly acquired a pair of older Pratt & Whitney JT8D-9A engined Boeing 727-200s, both of which needed the extra runway length.
The 727s started on the standard charter type routes ferrying tourists between the Netherlands and destinations such as Malaga in Spain. The carrier was initially backed by the oil company Transol, which had an 80% share and it also had the backing of major tour operators such as Arke and Neckermann. The carrier focused on providing a high-quality experience. By the end of 1987 it was profitable and had won a 22% share of the market.
1988 brought major changes for the airline. Transol reduced its shareholding to 35% and Block looked towards new equipment to take the carrier into the 1990s. Along with the majority of charter airlines he identified the excellent Boeing 757 as the perfect aircraft. The, by then, three 727s were returned to lessors between November 1987 and March 1988. They were replaced by a trio of new leased Boeing 757-27Bs.
The carrier’s livery cleverly used the colours of the Dutch national flag. It featured a white fuselage bisected by a blue and orange cheatline, with an additional vertical stripe motif that was repeated on the tail.
The 757s would also allow Block’s airline to branch out across the Atlantic and to dabble in operations in the Caribbean. Air Holland assisted in the start-up of Air Aruba in the Dutch Antilles, in which it had a 20% share. 1989 would see the carrier start service to Kenya in partnership with a subsidiary of Kenya Airways. An attempt to takeover Air Holland by Transavia during 1990 was successfully defeated and the original trio of 757s were instead leased out to Sterling Airways during the slow 1989 winter period. A fourth new 757 had been leased in, this time from AWAS, in March 1989.
The fiscal year 1989-90 ended with a respectable profit of DFL 7.3 million but the next year would be disastrous for the airline. Two of the original three 757s remained with Sterling but a 757-23A was leased from Inter European Airways of the UK (although it was almost immediately sub-leased out to Air Aruba). Another new 757-27B would join in August but it too would be leased out (this time to Condor two months later).
Air Holland acquired its first widebody equipment in October 1990 taking the Britannia 767-204ER G-BRIF on a year long lease. Unfortunately, the global economy was moving towards recession as the 90s dawned. Alongside the crisis in the Gulf, that led to the Gulf War, recession saw demand plummet while fuel prices skyrocketed.
Charter airlines have always been uniquely susceptible to quick changes in demand, as they tend to operate with limited profitability and can't easily replace lost holiday traffic. Air Holland was no different and the change in conditions hit it disastrously. From the profit of a year earlier the 1990-91 period brought a huge loss of DFL 30 million. John Block resigned in early September 1991 but on September 6 the carrier entered bankruptcy and all operations were suspended on October 2.
The original carrier was liquidated but, almost immediately, on November 3, a successor company, called Air Holland Charter, began operations under the command of the former financial director A.R. Marx. It had a new IATA/ICAO code pair and a new callsign - ORANGE rather than AIR HOLLAND. It’s first service was flown on December 20, 1991 using one of the original Boeing 757-200s. Although a separate company it used exactly the same livery and name as the original.
The reborn Air Holland would survive into the late 90s using the original 757-27Bs and also add an eventual trio of Boeing 737-300s - in 1992, 1994 and 1997. It signed a deal in 1993 with EL AL to operate the Israeli flag carrier’s Amsterdam-Tel Aviv route on the Sabbath (when EL AL cannot fly) and continued its own charter operations from Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Groningen and Maastricht. By the late 90s it was the only remaining independent Dutch airline but by 1999 its financial situation was troublesome. Operations were suspended for the second time on November 4, 1999.
Once again this was not the end for the airline however and it was resurrected in 2000 still using one of the original 757s (PH-AHE). Partly this was achieved by flying as the state airline of Senegal operating scheduled services to Europe from Banjul! This third incarnation of Air Holland expanded into long-haul operations using 767-300s but once again went bankrupt, this time in March 2004.
The remains of the company were this time acquired by the entrepreneur Erik de Vlieger and morphed into Exel Holland of the AirExel Group. By May 2005 that carrier was also bankrupt (and incriminated in money laundering and drug financing) and the remains were taken over by TUI and turned into ArkeFly, now known as Tui fly Netherlands.
Air Holland's trajectory has followed the path of many charter airlines but it has more than justified its existence over the years and Johan Block's added a level of diversity to the Dutch charter market that served Dutch holidaymakers well.
Shaw, R. Airline Markings 11: Boeing 757. Airlife
Vomhof, K. Leisure Airlines of Europe. Scoval Press
Leeuw, R. Airlines Remembered: Air Holland
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I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: