Celebrating 70 Years of Service
After starting out as a private entity Air France will celebrate its 70th anniversary this October in the knowledge that it will be returning to private ownership in the next two years. Although the completion of this cycle will represent a return to the airline’s roots, it will be quite a bit different from what it was when the Air France story began. Over that 70-year period the carrier has become established as one of the world’s leading airlines, supporting the development of the French economy and providing services to many of France’s colonies in Africa, Polynesia and the Caribbean.
The Early Years
Although Air France was not officially formed until 1933, its history dates back to much earlier in the century, even before the Wright brothers’ landmark flight in 1903. At the turn of the 20th century, Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian then living in France, completed an unpowered glider flight around the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and some six years later, in 1906, followed this up by completing a 60m unaided flight from Bagatelle in France.
It was in 1909 that the first air transport company was established in France when the Compagnie Générale Transaérienne began flying dirigibles and seaplanes. In 1918, following the end of World War One, the aircraft manufacturer Pierre-Georges Latécoère launched the first passenger airline. Latécoère had made his name by designing and building military aircraft from a factory in the South of France, very close to where Airbus now has its own corporate headquarters. Although his company, Les Lignes Latécoère, was established principally to fly mail, he identified a need for aircraft to fly over longer ranges, particularly to Latin America.
In the years which followed, additional airlines entered the market – L’Aéronavale, Les Messageries Aériennes, Les Grand Express Aériens, Les Lignes Farman, Messageries Transariennes and La Compagnie Franco-Roumaine. However, by the 1930s the first stage of consolidation in the market occurred as the companies looked to overcome the losses they were suffering at the time. This amalgamation led to the formation of just five carriers, all specialising in services to specific markets: Aéropostale to Spain, Morocco and South America; Air Union and Les Lignes Farman to Western Europe; Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aérienne (formerly La Compagnie Franco-Roumaine) to Eastern Europe; and a new start-up airline, Air Orient, to the Far East. The growth in aviation had seen the number of air links from France increase fivefold between 1923 and 1933, but with a growing global recession, the French Minister of Aviation, Pierre Cot, ruled that a further restructuring of the industry was required.
Early in 1933 it was ruled that the country’s passenger carriers should be merged together to form a single air operator under the name Société Centrale pour L’Exploitation des Lignes Aériennes (SCELA). In August that year, when the assets of bankrupt operator Aéropostale were also integrated into SCELA, the newcompany was renamed Air France, taking over Air Orient’s winged seahorse logo. (The Aéropostale brand was the only one of the original five names to survive, until recently flying as a cargo arm of the national carrier). Air France officially commenced operations on the morning of October 7, 1933, from a base at Le Bourget Airport, the country’s principal gateway.
The merger of the five airlines represented a fleet planner’s worst nightmare, bringing together a mixed fleet 259 aircraft of 31 different types. Over the next five years this was reduced to just 100 aircraft, comprising locally-manufactured Bloch 220s, Potez 62s and Wibault 282s, but still Air France managed to increase its traffic to 104,424 passengers a year, double the number it had carried when it was formed. The airline’s network also expanded by 20% during this period.
Much of this growth was due to the excellent service Air France was offering its passengers, news of which spread quickly throughout the European market. The airline believed that passenger comfort was just as important as safety , and its aircraft offered baggage racks , the service of a trained steward, heating, and individual fans for each passenger.
The Outbreak of war in Europe made a significant impact on air travel throughout the continent and France was particularly badly hit. Air France’s operations were suspended during much of World War Two, although once Allied forces had liberated the country they brought with them an important change for the airline. In 1944, General Charles de Gaulle took over power in France and immediately set about nationalising its key industries. This included aviation, and on June 26, 1945, Air France became a state-controlled entity under the control of the Transport Ministry.
By the end of the year, the airline was once again restructured when the operations of the Réseau des Lignes Aériennes Francaises (RLAF) – an affiliate of Air France operating from the Syrian capital Damascus and serving the ‘territories of Free France’ – were incorporated into a single network flown by Société Nationale Air France.
As a result of the war, Air France’s fleet had shrunk considerably – to only 20 aircraft – but thanks to the abundance of surplus aircraft available afterwards it was able to boost its operations, recommencing services throughout Europe and its colonies in Africa and Asia. The fleet growth included the introduction of locally-produced Bloch 161 Languedocs, as well as Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s.
The immediate avaiablilty of these aircraft enabled Air France to begin one of the main growth periods of its history. On becoming a member of the recently-founded International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA), it set about developing its activities. In March 1946, it introduced stewardesses on all its services and opened a new terminal in central paris (Les Invalides) to provide bus transport to its base at Le Bourget, to the North of Paris.
However, 1946 was a notable year for the airline’s network expansion, with the launch of transatlantic flights between Paris and New York. The first service, operated by a DC-4, departed the French capital on July 1, arriving in New York 19 hours and 50 minutes later. In the years which followed, new long-haul services were launched to Boston, Chicago and Montreal, and the Latin American cities of Bogota, Caracas and
These services were soon ungraded to Lockheed Constellations (and later to Super Constellations/Starliners), when Air France made innovative advancements in its in-flight service, offering passengers hot meals, accompanied by champagne and fine wines. With the introduction of private cabins (with beds) on some aircraft, the airline became very popular amongst affluent business travellers, most notably on its Epicurein service to London and its Parisien Spécial to New York.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, Air France had focused mainly on its intercontinental network, and by the middle of the 1950s, only 20% of its traffic was within Europe. Under this dramatic growth the airline’s network had risen to 100,000 miles (160,000km) in 1947 and this had increased to 155,000 miles (250,000km) by 1953, making it one of the largest air transport networks in the world, if not the largest (the airline’s workforce also more than doubled during this period).
As a result, Air France had outgrown its facilities at Le Bourget and in 1952 it relocated some flights to Orly Airport, a former USAAF occupied airport to the south of the capital, intending to use the additional capacity to improve its domestic activities. In November 1954, the airline joined forces with the national rail operator SNCF, the Caisses des Dépots et Consignations and other private investors to form Air Inter, a new domestic operator.
The new airline launched operations on March 16, 1958, between Paris and Strasbourg, adding additional destinations in subsequent years. Air Inter began operations using mainly a fleet of DC-3s acquired from Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux (TAI), but began to replace them with Vickers Viscounts in the early 1960s.
The Jet Era
Although new turboprop models were introduced for domestic services with Air Inter, Air France became one of the first airliners to embrace the jet era, introducing the de Havilland Comet to its fleet in 1953. However, much-publicised problems with the aircraft and its high-profile grounding resulted in Air France turning its attention to rival models, and in 1956 a decision was taken to acquire a mix of Boeing 707s and Sud-Aviation Caravelles to serve medium and long-haul networks. These aircraft were delivered from 1959 onwards, enabling the airline to cut journey times on its transatlantic flights by a half and to introduce new non-stop services to additional destinations in North and Latin America.
Maintaining its world-renowned service to its customers, the introduction of the new jet aircraft enabled Air France to offer yet more innovative in-flight services to passengers. Advancements in technology enabled it to become one of the first airlines to introduce movies on its long-haul flights.
The attention to quality at Air France helped it maintain its position as one of the world’s leading airlines, despite increasing competition in international markets. This was especially true following the French government’s February 1963 ruling to redistribute to the private sector traffic rights on routes, to East, Central and West Africa, the Pacific and Western US Coast. This resulted in the formation of a new rival to Air France, through the amalgamation of TAI and fellow private operator Union Aéromaritime de Transport into Union des Transports Aériens (UTA).
Despite the increasing competition, Air France continued its dramatic growth, with passenger growth averaging around 7.5% per annum. Additional expansion was achieved through the formation of a new subsidiary carrier to serve non-scheduled markets. Air Charter International was formed in July 1966, principally serving the Mediterranean holiday resorts with Caravelles leased from Air France and Air Inter.
As Air France grew, so new jet aircraft were incorporated into the fleet, including the B727 in 1968 and the B747 in 1970. The giant B747 provided Air France with additional opportunities alongside its extra passenger capacity and in 1972 it established its own cargo arm. Until this time, a couple of B707s had been flown on infrequent freight charters, but the introduction of dedicated B747-200Fs from 1974 led to the cargo market taking on a much more prominent role in Air France’s activities, and this was to prove particularly important during the economic crisis of the late 1970s.
Having initially operated only turboprop models, Air France’s domestic partner Air Inter was itself now operating jet aircraft in the form of the Caravelle. However, in 1974 the airline introduced to its fleet the first of a total of eleven Dassault Mercures. This locally-manufactured aircraft was touted as a possible rival to the popular B737, but a second customer for the model was never secured and production was suspended after Air Inter received its final aircraft.
Having already moved some operations to Orly Airport in the 1950s, Air France eventually moved its entire operation there in 1961, including its support and maintenance facilities. However, as the airline continued to experience annual growth, and with the industry witnessing exponential expansion, it was only a matter of time before additional capacity was required in the airline’s home market.
In 1974, Paris’ brand new international gate-way airport, Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), was opened. Located to the north of the city, close to the location of Air France’s initial base at Le Bourget, this airport was developed with growth in mind, having significant land available for future expansion. Work on the project had started in December 1966, and on March 13, 1974, an Air France airliner was the first to arrive on the airport’s 11,000ft (3,600m) single runway and use the new terminal building, which was designed to handle ten million passengers a year.
Air France initially moved only a small number of its routes from Orly to CDG (around 20% of its total traffic), having always intended to operate from a new state-of-the-art second terminal at the airport, construction of which had already begun. However, by November around 70% of its operations were taking place from the original terminal, in a not ideal but interim solution due to the terminal’s capacity constraints – Air France eventually moved its operation to Terminal 2 at CDG in March 1982, which today remains its principal base.
Two months after the opening of CDG, Air France became the first airline to take delivery of the Airbus A300. The first airline to take delivery of the Airbus A300. The first airliner to be manufactured by the new pan-European Airbus Consortium, this aircraft marked the dawn of a new era in the airline industry.
Air France’s selection of the Airbus A300 had been no real surprise given that the manufacturer’s assembly facilities were in Toulouse in Southern France and that its engineers had completed significant work in supporting the aircraft’s development. The first revenue service with the wide-bodied aircraft was operated on May 5, 1974, and the type was predominantly used between Paris and London. Although the introduction of the A300 was a milestone in the airline’s history, its acquisition was overshadowed just 20 months later by the introduction into service of the first of seven Aerospatiale/BAC Concordes. The French National carrier inaugurated operations with the type on January 21, 1976, flying between Paris and Rio de Janeiro, making a technical stop in the Senegalese capital Dakar. Non-stop services were later offered from the French capital to both New York and Washington. In just over 27 years of service, Air France’s seven Concordes carried over 1.3 million passengers on both scheduled and charter services. The airline retired its last aircraft from service earlier this year.
Consolidation and Profitability
The economic recession of the late 1970s and the serious over-capacity in the market had a serious impact on the industry. However, Air France was able to maintain a strong share of the market and entered the 1980s as one of the world’s leading airlines. At the time of its 50th anniversary in 1983, the airline was ranked the fourth largest carrier in the world in terms of passengers carried, operating a fleet of 99 aircraft to 150 destinations in 73 countries.
Despite its strong position, the airline had struggled financially over the past decades, relying on significant state subsidies to support its operations , and this was a factor which needed to be addressed as the eventual deregulation of the European air transport industry loomed. As a result of the deregulation, a new management philosophy was introduced at the airline under a mandate from the state to become a competitive and profitable entity. A programme to significantly rationalise the airline’s activities, network and fleet was introduced to trim costs.
However, the airline continued its dramatic growth and in 1988 a major new order for aircraft was announced, including the selection of the Airbus A320, the world’s first commercial fly-by-wire- aircraft. The aircraft were to be operated both by Air France and its partner carriers, in a new stage of consolidation in the French market.
On January 12, 1990, Groupe Air France was founded after the national carrier increased its shareholding in Air Inter and acquired the majority control of private operator UTA. Although Air Inter continued to operate as a separate concern until April 1997, UTA, and its charter arm Aeromaritime, were integrated into the new Air France structure in 1992.
The restructuring of the industry, its new corporate plan and the continued expansion of its CDG hub – now one of Europe’s leading transfer hubs, with 14,000 weekly connections – enabled Air France to return to profitability in the 1996/1997 financial year. By 1999/2000, the airline had increased net profits to FF 2.3 billion ($350 million).
As the 20th century ended, Air France began to renew its long haul fleet with the introduction of A340 and B777 models, and a new corporate plan was developed to transform the airline from an evolving European national carrier to a world-class airline major.
As part of the consolidation of the French market during the 1990s, Air France had looked at acquiring small strategic stakes in other foreign entities. Although its shareholdings in both CSA Czech Airlines and Sabena were later dropped as a result of European Union pressure, they represented the airline’s first moves towards forming a new major airline alliance.
Following the signing of a long-term marketing agreement with US carrier Delta Air Lines in June 1999, the foundations were laid for a new intercontinental alliance. Exactly one year later, on June 22, 2000, in partnership with Aeromexico, Delta Air Lines and Korean Air, The SkyTeam global alliance was formed. The four airlines brought together a strong route network encompassing almost 6,500 daily flights carrying over 174 million passengers a year. With both Alitalia and CSA Czech Airlines joining in subsequent years, further growth has already been achieved.
The alliance is currently the third largest in the world behind Star and oneworld . However, with Continental Airlines, KLM and Northwest Airlines in talks to potentially join SkyTeam from 2004, it would certainly rival the two older groupings (of the Oneworld and Star Alliances). However, regardless of the final outcome of talks and regulatory approval for the deal, Air France’s position in SkyTeam provides it with a strong global platform for future growth.
Alongside its SkyTeam interests, Air France has expanded its operations through partnerships and marketing agreements with other airlines around the world. In the domestic market, it owns stakes in Brit Air and Régional, and through these subsidiary carriers it has established regional hubs at Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon and Marseilles. In the European market, Air France is a minority owner of Irish operator CityJet and has franchise agreement with FlyBe and CCM Compagnie Corse Méditerranée. Over the past five years, a significant number of codeshare agreements have been put in place and Air France now has partnerships with over 30 airlines around the world.
Now under the management of Jean-Cyril Spinetta, the airline currently flies to almost 300 cities in over 80 countries, with a fleet of 245 aircraft. Under its current fleet plans, Air France is retiring its older generation models in favour of more modern and fuel-efficient designs. The airline has a dynamic fleet policy in that it operates a common family of types for its short and long haul services through two different fleet concepts.
In the short-haul market, its development is based around the Airbus A320 family, and it operates all three current production models. It is due to introduce the A318, the fourth and smallest variant within the family, into commercial operation by early November. The long-haul market is a different concept for Air France, the airline’s philosophy being an individual aircraft for individual markets. With a fleet of approximately 40 A330/A340s and 40 B777-200/300s, including the new longer range B777-300ER, the carrier can place exactly the right aircraft on an individual route, tailoring its fleet planning to the market needs while maintaining a sizeable fleet to achieve economies of scale. As routes mature, further services can be upgraded through the A340 and B777 to the B747 family and, subject to individual operating requirements, to the A380. Air France’s growth strategy clearly focuses on the development of its fleet, and despite announcing new orders for the B747-400ERF and A380, the airline continues to study other aircraft options.
Having already reduced its role in managing Air France in 1999 when it sold off a third of its shares in the airline, the French government is now preparing to return the airline to the private sector, and is expected to fully privatise it in the coming year. The government believes that privatisation will enable the airline to face the increasingly tough international competition in the best possible manner, with a healthy financial structure and a respected global branding.
Many thanks to Anneliese Morris, Air France’s UK communications manager for her invaluable help supporting the research of this article.
As the French national carrier enters its 80th year of operations, Barry Woods-Turner examines the company’s evolution and discovers how it is positioning itself for the future. For the full story see the October 2013 issue of Airliner World.