At a time when it seems many of the (even tiniest) luxuries, have been stripped away from air travel, not all hope is lost. As many US airlines slowly resume offering the most basic, pre-pandemic pleasures in the pointy end of the plane (mixed nuts with a drink or a meal that doesn’t come out of a box), some overseas carriers have already returned dignity to their service much earlier. Some, even, add their own twist to the experience.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in the Netherlands, part of the SkyTeam alliance, has never stopped a tradition it started in the 1950s as a thank you to its premium cabin fliers – its famous Delftware house gift.
At the conclusion of a long-haul World Business Class flight, KLM flight attendants pass through the cabin with a tray of gin-filled, miniature Dutch houses, each of which is based on a real address in the Netherlands. The houses portray a historically significant location in the country, and deciding which house will join the collection each year is not an easy task.
President and CEO Pieter Elbers has the final say after he is presented with numerous choices. Nearly half of the 102 houses are Amsterdam addresses while the other half come from different cities around the country. The new house is unveiled each year at a grand celebration on the airline’s Oct. 7 birthday, but the process begins much sooner.
The final selection is made in the spring to allow time to produce enough houses for the October unveiling. Each year, the airline produces one million of these Delft houses (both the new and existing ones), fills them with the Dutch Bols Genever spirit, and delivers them to planes to give to passengers starting on the airline’s birthday. So coveted are these tiny gems of airline memorabilia that some passengers even book long-haul flights specifically on Oct. 7 to be among the first to receive one. Now that’s a conversation starter at parties!
Even more difficult to get is a ticket to the unveiling ceremony, often at or near the actual location of the chosen building. The newest house (number 102) is a replica of the Tuschinski Theatre, a historic Amsterdam cinema that was recently voted the world’s most beautiful by the UK’s Time Out magazine for its blend of art nouveau and art deco styles.
The airline invited local dignitaries (including Amsterdam’s mayor, who received the first house) and some of its most frequent fliers to the 102nd birthday celebration. Some members of its Flying Blue top-tier Ultimate status, who must reach a certain threshold for flying and spending, received an invite. Others must wait for the airline’s KLM House app to update after the event to get a glimpse of the latest house (or take a long-haul flight in business class).
These days, the number of airlines that give first or business class passengers a parting gift has dwindled, leaving KLM among an elite few. Elbers has said the houses are such an important tradition for the airline that it has no plans to scrap them for cost savings. In fact, they are often seen as a brilliant marketing tool that leads many fliers to choose KLM over a competitor.
Don’t fret if you get two of the same. While the KLM Houses app can prevent that, duplicates can be traded for a new one in the airline’s Amsterdam business class lounge or with a flight attendant on board.
Architectural expert and author Mark Zegeling actually wrote a book about the houses titled Little Kingdom by the Sea: A Celebration of Dutch Cultural Heritage. The book, which was recently translated into Chinese and is available as an e-book, outlines the architectural significance of each house. According to Zegeling, many collectors are business travelers who frequent the airline, and he comments how some male passengers become quite energized to add another one to their collection (the grown-up traveler’s version of baseball cards, perhaps?)
Travel is transformative and joyful. When an airline manages to make the journey as special as the destination, it represents a small, but meaningful, victory for the nostalgia that has been missing in air travel for decades.