News provided by Vancouver Sun – link to full story and updates
Airline plans to increase capacity on the Toronto-Paris route by 15% by summer 2020 on top of a 20% increase over the past three years
EMILY JACKSON Updated: October 29, 2019
Air France is vying for more Canadian customers — especially those who fancy lying flat in business class on overnight flights to Paris — with investments to increase the number of flights to and from Toronto on its newest Airbus aircraft.
The airline owned by Air France KLM Group plans to increase capacity on the Toronto-Paris route by 15 per cent by summer 2020 on top of a 20 per cent increase over the past three years, executives said in Toronto on Monday after arriving on Air France’s first Airbus A350-900’s inaugural transatlantic flight.
Much like Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd., which is ramping up transatlantic flights with its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, Air France is moving upmarket to try to attract business class passengers with its brand new planes. It doubled the number of business seats available in summer 2019 and by next summer will operate two flights daily for the first time since it started flying in and out of Toronto’s international airport in 1976.
“Canada is our third market after the U.S. and China,” chief executive Anne Rigail said in an interview. “It’s really very important for us to offer the best of our products to Ontario customers.”
Despite challenges Air France faces in its domestic market — it plans to reduce short- and mid-haul capacity by 2.5 per cent this winter amidst increased competition from high-speed trains and low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet — it expects its long-haul capacity to rise 4 per cent this season.
Air France has not been majorly affected by the Boeing 737 Max groundings, as it had none of the jets in its predominantly Airbus fleet. While the groundings will affect how Air France handles safety certifications going forward, Rigail said it’s difficult to see the exact impact from the groundings given the larger economic context.
“The economy context is a bit concerning,” Rigail said. “We have this trade war that is affecting the customer demand. We see it on the yield.”
Still, capacity between Canada and Europe rose 5 per cent last year, and Air France expects that steady growth to continue this year, said Vincent Etchebehere, general manager of Air France KLM Canada.
Many long-haul airlines have taken a low-cost approach on transatlantic flights, causing Air France to tweak its communication strategy in the North America to pitch its fares as competitive once all the “hidden fees” from rivals are added, Etchebehere said. But he sees a bit of a reversal in Canada, where airlines such as WestJet are upgrading to full service.
“That is why our business strategy in terms of quality of the offering improvement is so consistent for Canada,” he said.
The new A350s have larger windows, wider screens, are 40 per cent quieter and the business class seats recline flat. The executives insisted these features make a difference even though they said the flight schedule is the number one selling factor for business travellers.
As such, Air France is spending to try to raise brand awareness in Canada with a sponsorship for the Toronto International Film Festival. (Etchebehere said the 2005 incident where an Air France flight overshot the runway at Toronto Pearson didn’t have a noticeable affect on the brand.)
It’s also pitching itself as the sustainable choice given investments to renew its fleet. By 2025, it expects to take delivery of 28 A350s (it signed a $7.5-billion deal with Airbus in 2013). In July 2019, Air France announced a $5.5-billion order for 60 A220s, the model formerly known as the C Series until Airbus took control of the plane from Bombardier.
The A350 reduces fuel consumption and carbon emissions by 25 per cent and the A220 by 20 per cent, CEO Rigail said. Air France has already reduced its overall carbon dioxide emissions by 7 per cent since 2011, she said, and by 2030 plans to cut them by 50 per cent from 2005 levels.
“In Europe, we feel really big pressure from our consumers, business or leisure, to be able to travel in a more sustainable way,” she said.
The executives were curious to know how Canadians reacted to the news that Air France bought the A220 planes given they’re still manufactured in Mirabel, Que., even though Bombardier gave Airbus a 50.1 per cent stake in the project in exchange for taking over procurement, marketing and sales.
“It was a big step. Everyone wondering why we were choosing a Canadian aircraft,” Rigail said.
She described the plane as “tremendous” in terms of cost and customer experience.
“You had quite a problem with production. The conditions were perfect for everyone,” she said.