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In memoriam: Former KLM President & CEO Sergio Orlandini (1921 – 2015)

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Former KLM President & CEO Sergio Orlandini passed away on Wednesday, 28 October. The funeral ceremony will be held this afternoon and several KLM staff members will be present to represent the airline. Amongst others, I will be accompanied by three former KLM CEOs: Messrs Bouw, Van Wijk and Hartman. KLM’s flag will also be flying at half-mast today, in a fitting gesture of condolence at Mr Orlandini’s passing.
Acting on behalf of the KLM Supervisory Board, the Board of Directors, and the workforce, past and present, I last week offered my condolences to his wife, Mrs Diane Orlandini-Brown, their children and the other members of their family. Last Saturday, the Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Mr Hans Smits, and I placed a message of condolence in the NRC Handelsblad and De Telegraaf on behalf of KLM.
Sergio Orlandini first joined KLM in 1951 and held various positions at different departments before being appointed to the Board of Directors in 1970. He was subsequently appointed President & CEO in 1973. He held this post until he retired in 1987. After Albert Plesman, he served as KLM’s President & CEO for the longest term. From 1988 to 1993, Mr Orlandini had a seat on the Supervisory Board, in which capacity he remained closely involved in KLM’s ups and downs. Following his tenure, he continued to be closely involved in developments across the airline industry.
Mr Orlandini led KLM through turbulent times. The introduction of Boeing 747s and DC-10s made it vital to increase yields. Load factor had to be raised and having to lower operating costs became unavoidable. Similar to now, it was a time when KLM faced fierce competition, only then under pressure from developments including the rapidly emerging charter market. Additionally, KLM faced financial hardships resulting from worldwide recession and rising fuel prices. By adopting far-reaching measures, including staff reductions and other efficiency-driven steps, KLM succeeded in generating positive operating results for 14 consecutive years after a number of loss-making financial years.
The most difficult times in Mr Orlandini’s career came after the accident involving the Boeing 747 “Rijn” on Tenerife on 27 March 1977, resulting in the death of everyone on board. He carried this tragedy and sorrow always. On one of the walls in the boardroom, there was an image depicting a B747-300 taking to the skies in the rain. It was this image – he later shared with the artist – that inspired him during meetings and gave him the strength to take difficult decisions. Regardless of the circumstances, Sergio Orlandini always remained confident in the future – even in the face of setbacks.
KLM achieved steady growth under President & CEO Orlandini’s leadership. Passenger numbers almost doubled. Cargo volumes rose by more than 200%, aided most certainly by the successful introduction of combi aircraft. Mr Orlandini praised the positive and constructive spirit of the KLM workforce, which in turn respected him enormously. According to Sergio Orlandini, KLM was not only made up of aircraft and other investments. He believed that people formed the heart of the company and that everyone was important. A school of thought that still thrives within KLM and that sets us apart from the competition.
Based on strategic insight, a clear vision targeting operational synergies and customer focus, he transformed KLM into a commercial enterprise. His Italian roots were visible in his keen aptitude for marketing and style, and his Dutch upbringing manifested in efficiency and his commercial spirit. When he stepped down in 1987, KLM was ready to take on its role in forging global alliances.
This afternoon, we will bid farewell to this exceptional man who meant so much to KLM. The thoughts of many people at KLM go out to his wife and children in bearing this loss. As do mine. Personally, I remember Sergio Orlandini as a charismatic and engaging man who led KLM skilfully and with integrity over the years, harnessing the right combination of vision, leadership and input. I cherish the last time we dined together, accompanied by his wife, at the start of October, shortly after celebrating our 96th anniversary. He assured me that at the age of 94, he was still younger than KLM. And, joining his firm commitment and genuine interest asked: “When will the amazing Boeing 787 be arriving?”
We will always be indebted to this icon of our company for his involvement and many years of service he devoted to KLM.
Pieter Elbers – KLM President & CEO

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